Listen: Dropouts: Falling Off the Bottom Rung

Midday presents the Public Policy Unit documentary "Dropouts: Falling off the Bottom Rung." MPR’s Stephen Smith, Bill Catlin, and Dan Olson create a collaborative report on Minnesota high school dropouts.

Topics of teen pregnancy, Head Start program, street gangs, and alternative schools are highlighted.


1988 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Excellence in Journalism - Radio Investigative category

1987 Northwest Broadcast News Association Award, award of merit in Documentary - Large Market category


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[WHODINI, "GROWING UP"] (SINGING) It's all a part of growing up

Things are gonna be hard but don't give up

It's all just a part of growing up

And we like to wish you all the best of luck

Now growing up is a hell of a job

The pay is good but the work is hard

Sometimes you feel like you want to quit

And that's when you remember this

There ain't nothing new under the sun

What you doing now it's already been done

Fifth period I did the same as you

I used to play cards in my lunchroom too

Now I used to cut class hanging out in the hall

I tipped my hat to the side cold playing the wall

Because smoking in school was against the rules

So I did not smoke and I still was cool

Now you get yours like I got mine

Wanna see you there at graduation time

Fight your battles don't ever run

Cause you win some and then you lose some

It's all just a part of growing up

Things are going to be hard but don't give up


DAN OLSON: There are nearly a quarter million young people enrolled in Minnesota high schools. Each year, an estimated 3% to 5% of them decide school is more trouble than it's worth.

SPEAKER: Well, it started to get boring, and I just wanted to work. I wanted to work and be free. I didn't want to come to school no more.

SPEAKER: Well, there's a lot of arguing and this and that, and parents were drinking. And when I go to school, I'd just be gazing on that instead of my work.

DAN OLSON: Their reasons differ widely, but the end is the same, dropping out.

SPEAKER: Well, I dropped out a little before 10th grade ended, and I planned to go on to 11th grade. But I was just so far behind in credits that I'd probably end up being a freshman again.

SPEAKER: I was about 13 years old, and things wasn't going too good with me and my father at home. And my mother, she had a nervous breakdown, so I was living with my father. So I didn't like that too much, so I started getting high and staying out late and eventually not coming home and not being able to go to school.

DAN OLSON: Most dropouts in Minnesota are white. But like the rest of the country, the dropout rate in grades 9 through 12 is highest among minorities. Last school year, Native Americans topped the dropout list at 16% statewide. For Blacks, the rate was more than 14%, Hispanics, 10%. The dropout rate for white Minnesotans was just over 3.5%.

SPEAKER: What I think it was being switched from different school to different school, and I just wam, bam, into a class, and we're right in the middle of a semester. And I got to learn all this stuff that I don't even know.

SPEAKER: Like, equations and all that x times y equals 0, that blows me away. I still don't understand that. And for them to just sit up on the board and say x times y equals 0, do it all fast and everything, and you're still looking at x. And they're done with the problem and everything, you know what I'm talking about. And then they get frustrated when you ask them to help you because they feel like they've already did their job, and they don't have to do no more.

DAN OLSON: Studies back up the common-sense notion that dropouts have a harder time finding jobs than kids who graduate, and they earn less money. Dropouts also commit more crimes and end up on welfare more often. Because of their economic status, they're more likely to suffer from poor health and nutrition, and they're more likely to become parents while still adolescents.

SPEAKER: If you graduate, you have a better chance of not being on welfare than you are of being on it. If you don't graduate, you end up in that same old rut where you're sitting at home every month waiting for your check.

SPEAKER: You can't really get no job or get nowhere without no diploma, nowhere. You've got to have something behind you other than I quit school, and I just need a job.

DAN OLSON: Some youngsters who quit school find themselves in an alternative education program, but many others who drop out are out for good. A fraction of these will do just fine. They'll get decent jobs, and they'll chart their own ways to a productive life.

But for most dropouts, the reality is bleak. Theirs is often a low-pay, low-rent, hopeless sort of life. Frequently, it's their parents' unintended legacy.

SPEAKER: They want me to go back, so I can get a good education and grow up to be somebody instead of what they're doing. They're trying to make ends meet.

DAN OLSON: 16-year-old Jeff dropped out last summer after eighth grade. He asked that we not use his real name. Jeff's mother was a dropout.

His father had trouble with the law. Since quitting school, Jeff hasn't looked for a job, and he has no interest in sitting through any more classes. He didn't like the teachers, the other kids, or the homework.

SPEAKER: I didn't want to do it. I liked to go out and play around and stuff. I don't like doing work.

DAN OLSON: Jeff has his way now. His days and nights are spent hanging around home or with friends. He says it's boring, but school was worse. Yet, Jeff acknowledges that his lack of education makes for a dim future.

SPEAKER: Because when you think about it, it's embarrassing because I'm still sitting at home while my friends are at school. They're getting a good education, while I'm sitting back getting piddly.

DAN OLSON: For Larry Humphrey, the regrets go back about 25 years.

LARRY HUMPHREY: While I was in grade school, I was more or less a class clown, I guess what you can call it.

DAN OLSON: Larry Humphrey is 35 years old. He lives in East St. Paul. Larry dropped out in 10th grade.

LARRY HUMPHREY: I mean, I never paid attention. You know what I mean? I know now I should have paid attention because, man, it's really a drawback.

DAN OLSON: Larry gets temporary work now and then, manual labor, but depends on welfare to survive. Larry's problem is he can't read.

LARRY HUMPHREY: And if you can't read what you're looking at, I mean, you can't find a job because you don't know what the application says or what it's for or what type it is.

DAN OLSON: Larry's learning to read with the help of a volunteer tutor. But he wishes now that he'd finished school. Larry says that if he hadn't dropped out, life would be much different.

LARRY HUMPHREY: I'm on a GA right now. And I got to help my mom out with the rent and the different kinds of bills we pay. And at the end of the month, we don't have very much left to buy hardly any clothes. I mean, I have very few clothes now as it is, and it's pretty hard when you can't find a decent job, and you don't know how to read. It's embarrassing really.

DAN OLSON: Nationally, about one in four high school students drops out each year. Minnesota's statewide average of 3% to 5% is puny by comparison, but the numbers in the center cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are more disturbing. 12.5% of Minneapolis public high school students dropped out last year. In St. Paul, 10%.

This seemingly small social problem poses enormous costs, the cost to each student as job prospects dwindle, the cost to society and remedial programs, welfare, and law enforcement. For many students, dropping out of school means dropping out of the future. For disadvantaged children, education is about the only ladder they can use to climb out of poverty.

And while bureaucrats argue about how many dropouts there are and what should be done with them, more kids are dropping out. No one claims to have all the answers, but one thing is known. When you drop out of school, you're falling off the bottom rung.

(SINGING) No way out, no, no way out

No, no, no way out, no, no way out

No, no, no way out, no, no way out


DAN OLSON: This is the Mother and Infant Care Program at North High School in Minneapolis.

SPEAKER: I was pregnant when I was 15. My mom wouldn't let me see my boyfriend anymore. She told me I couldn't see him.

So we decided that if I got pregnant, they couldn't stop us, and we did. And then after I got pregnant, I told him I wouldn't marry him until I was 18. So by the time Becky was five months old, we broke up anyways, so it was for the best.

DAN OLSON: Tracy is 20 years old now, living in Minneapolis with her parents. After dropping out of high school, she found her way again, returned to school, got a diploma, and has a part-tie job. But six years ago, Tracy's future was clouded.

SPEAKER: I was told in ninth grade I'd probably never graduate and that I would be unsuccessful at anything in life. I was 14 when he told me that.

DAN OLSON: The judgment on Tracy's young life was offered by an adult acquaintance. And for a time, Tracy's behavior matched the prediction.

TRACY: After I got pregnant was when I realized that I was pushing it too far to the limit of doing what they were saying that I would do. So I knew I had to get back on my feet and get it together.

SPEAKER: You feel that anybody really went to bat for you in the school system tried to help you out?

TRACY: Mrs. Muir did. But before that, nobody did. And that's probably basically why I got pregnant. Nobody was really there to help me before. They were all there afterwards. I think if there was more help with the girls before they get pregnant-- not just contraceptives and things like that, it should be more to it showing us what is going to happen, what could happen if we don't take the precautions.

DAN OLSON: With the support of Barbara Muir and others, Tracy got her diploma. She earned it through MICE or Mother and Infant Care, a Minneapolis schools program operated at two high schools. Barbara Muir directs the North High School program.

BARBARA MUIR: You name the reason they got pregnant. I love my boyfriend. I didn't know it could happen to me. I didn't think it would happen to me. My friends were all pregnant, I thought it would be neat to have a baby. I want someone to love me. That's probably the key one, I wanted someone to love me.

DAN OLSON: The 12-year-old MICE Program in Minneapolis will allow 90 teenage mothers this year to bring their infant children to school. The mothers can leave the kids with day care workers and then go to class. Barbara Muir.

BARBARA MUIR: A typical young mother in my program right now would be 16 years old, an 11th grader with an 18-month-old baby with a history perhaps of truancy and absenteeism, who is maybe 5 or 8 credits behind, which put her behind a trimester and graduating, who currently is doing very well in school, coming to school attending on a regular basis and earning most of her credits.

DAN OLSON: The first school-based day care center in Minnesota, perhaps the first one in the country, was started in Saint Paul over 15 years ago. There are similar programs in a handful of other cities in the country. But Barbara Muir says money and attitudes are obstacles which discourage wider adoption of a school-based day care center.

BARBARA MUIR: People do not want to acknowledge the fact that teenagers do get pregnant. And one way you don't acknowledge it is by denying that they exist. And you deny that they exist by not providing services for them. This is why so many programs--


Pregnant girls are housed outside of school buildings. They are off in their own separate little world. And when I tell people that we sit in a regular school building, they are just amazed that this is accepted and almost-- that it's permitted within the school district. It's something that we want to-- not we, but it's something that I think society wants to sweep under the rug.

DAN OLSON: If the MICE waiting list is a measure, Barbara Muir estimates that the demand for school-based daycare in Minneapolis is three to four times what's available. It's the same story in Saint Paul. What happens to the teenage mothers not served? Many will drop out of school.

A few of them may qualify for welfare. But Nancy Harold says their chances there are slim.

NANCY HAROLD: There are some funds available for the county. And one of the roles that I have as a social worker is to help link the adolescent parent up with the Welfare Department in getting funds and that kind of thing. But again, funds are really limited.

And lately, they've been saying that only people who are on AFDC are eligible to get the day care funds, which is a problem because many of these parents-- of these adolescents are not eligible for AFDC because they need to use their parents' income as a guideline. The parents are maybe just above the poverty level. There's not enough money to pay for day care. And it's a catch-22.

DAN OLSON: Nancy Harold is a social work supervisor in Saint Paul. She works for a company which runs clinics in four Saint Paul high schools. Creation of the clinics over a decade ago was one of the first attempts in this country to offer free health care to pregnant teens. The goal was to help the young women have a healthy baby, and then find a way for them to stay in school after delivery.


The existence of a high school health clinic was and, to some, still is a controversial idea. This clinic at Humboldt High School in West Saint Paul is open five days a week before, during, and after school hours. Family nurse practitioner Sue [INAUDIBLE] is holding a sheet listing 31 appointments for the day.

SUE: We do see a fair number of kids that might have some health insurance coverage. But whether they have-- when they have that coverage and whether they use that coverage are two different things. And the majority of the kids that we see feel pretty uncomfortable using their regular health care source because they're either forced to go into adult medicine or pediatrics.

And the kids don't consider themselves children anymore. And they can't really be treated like little adults either. They are in an in-between stage or phase or part of development. And that needs to be recognized and dealt with in a special way.

DAN OLSON: The clinics do not dispense contraceptives the staff hears all manner of student concerns ranging from sore throats and poor nutrition to problems at home and in Nancy Harold's view the school-based clinic is a logical part of a dropout prevention program

NANCY HAROLD: Healthy kids are better learners. That's the motto of the school nurses. And I think it applies that education in a vacuum is pretty much irrelevant, that kids who have multiple concerns about their health-- physical health, their mental health, emotional health-- can't really focus on the area of education. And in order to educate people, we have to do more than teach them to add 1 and 1. We have to look at the whole atmosphere and climate of their life.


DAN OLSON: This is the sound of a respirator pumping oxygen into the lungs of a prematurely born infant at Hennepin County Medical Center. Teenage mothers bear the highest risk of giving birth to premature babies like this. Teenage mothers are also more likely to deliver full term babies that suffer from poor health.

People interested in preventing dropouts are also interested in preventing unhealthy babies because these children have a higher rate of developmental problems as they grow up, and they're more likely to drop out of school. In Minneapolis, city officials want to create an aggressive family and early childhood education program that would begin tracking the children of teenage mothers and poor families while those babies are still in the womb.

SCOTTY GILLETTE: For every hour that you can keep a baby in the womb, you save $100.

DAN OLSON: Scotty Gillette is a consultant to the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, who specializes in early childhood education.

SCOTTY GILLETTE: Even though these programs are expensive, if you can prevent preterm deliveries, if you can produce higher weight babies, if you can produce healthier babies, you're saving enormous costs to society.

DAN OLSON: For the first three years of a child's life, early education programs focus mostly on the parents, teaching parents how to raise their youngsters in a healthy and stimulating environment. The next phase, age 3 to 5, is preschool, when the focus shifts to the child.

GROUP: (SINGING) Strawberry shortcake

Blueberry pie

Sugar-coated gumdrops

My, my, my

Are we sweet?

Yes, I guess

Head start, head start, yes, I am

SPEAKER: OK. Let's see who's here. It looks like somebody got a haircut. Where is Ricky? Ricky--

DAN OLSON: Head Start is perhaps the best known preschool program for disadvantaged families. This morning, a class of about 20 children starts off with a song at the Head Start Center in Saint Paul's University in Dale neighborhood. The children spend a half day at the center, where free education, nutrition, medical, and social services are provided. Angela Mann is director of the program.

ANGELA MANN: We are a complete social service agency. And a lot of people do not know that that's what Head Start really is. Our primary goal is child education but along with that are all the other things that support the child's education.

DAN OLSON: This Head Start program is designed to get the children to think about what they want to do each day, to set goals for themselves at school. Teacher Maria Fitzgerald says, the more responsibility, a child takes for his or her own learning day, the better that child is likely to do later on in school.

For that reason, Fitzgerald and the other teachers talk to the kids in a special way.

MARIA FITZGERALD: How you feel about yourself really matters. And so when we talk to the children, we try to use the positive rather than the negative. There are different ways to talk to children. We try not to say, no, you can't do that. We try to say, why don't you try it this way?

ANGELA MANN: The early years are when they are-- when their attitudes are formed.

DAN OLSON: Head Start director Angela Mann.

ANGELA MANN: What we do is provide them with positive experiences. We expose them to different aspects of society through field trips. We have specific cognitive skills that we train them on so their self confidence-- when they walk into that classroom, their self-confidence is higher. And then they're able to go ahead and concentrate on the learning.

DAN OLSON: For low income children with a preschool education, the rates for employment, college, and vocational training nearly double. Angela Mann says that Head Start and other preschool programs can help poor families break the cycle of poverty. And although Head Start costs more than $2,000 a year per child, Mann says the taxpayer saves money.

ANGELA MANN: We say that, and it-- studies have supported this. For every $1 that is put into an early childhood program, such as Head Start, $4 are saved in later cost of delinquency special ed, early pregnancy, welfare. So in fact, we're saving society hundreds and thousands of dollars for each child that goes through early intervention programs such as Head Start.

DAN OLSON: In spite of the glowing statistics, there aren't enough programs to serve the need. Officials say there are waiting lists for nearly all the publicly funded preschool programs in the Metropolitan area.


There's a saying in the education world that truancy is the kindergarten for crime. It means that kids who start skipping school before high school are more likely to drop out when they turn old enough. And kids who drop out are more likely to get mixed up with crime.

Juvenile crime in Minneapolis is on the rise, especially violent crime. Street gangs like the Vice Lords and the Disciples are a very visible part of that trend. For many kids, the lure of a youth gang is appealing. For others, the gangs spread only fear and hatred.

SPEAKER: Man, it's just getting terrible. It's getting messed up, especially up here because this is a peaceful time.

DAN OLSON: It's a small town, so everybody really know everybody. And then, say, one person be a Blood, one person be a Vice Lord, one person be a Disciple, one person be a Soul. And then all of a sudden, they is disliking each other because they tipped their hat this way. And the other one tipped their hat this way.

And then they be wanting to fight each other. And what makes it so bad is that when they was little, they was friends.


DAN OLSON: This is the cafeteria at South High School in Minneapolis, where students are eating lunch. Threading from table to table in this windowless concrete room is Stephen Floyd, a contract social worker for the Minneapolis Public Schools. His specialty is dealing with street gangs. A big part of his job is convincing the kids to stay in school and out of trouble.

Floyd is popular. And today, a group of young men and women gather around his table to trade stories about a weekend gang fight.

SPEAKER: Yeah, they took his head and rammed it against the chair. You know Mandela Dalton and Pepper? Old Mandela got rat. Boy, they kicked them all up in this stuff. He came out like this.


I was trying to get home, man. I was getting a couple of them, man. But still, though, man. I was trying to, old man.

SPEAKER: That's out exactly how they--

SPEAKER: And I was saying, I was trying, old man. But I couldn't one of them [INAUDIBLE]. One kid hit me in the head.

SPEAKER: The ones that were standing behind, talking head.

SPEAKER: I know.

DAN OLSON: The kids know that Stephen Floyd frowns on violence. But he isn't here to harangue them. Floyd spends his time at South High teaching by example.

STEPHEN FLOYD: A lot of times is that the kids don't have anybody to really talk to about different problems or different issues. And they do look at me as a type of role model because of the things that I've done and what I've accomplished through the circumstances from growing up out of Chicago and being involved in the gangs.

And then I had a spiritual change in my life, where I became a Christian. And I'm still able to have a lot of success in the things that I do. And it's better than seeing the normal role models that they see-- the dope dealers and the hustlers and the guys that have a lot of money and the gold chains around their necks. Those are the only people that they really see.

DAN OLSON: Floyd is 27 years old with a tall athletic build and a shy easy smile. He was raised in a public housing project on Chicago's violent South Side. He says his religious calling is to work with the gangs, though he doesn't proselytize. His days are spent in the public schools, his nights on the street. The contrast is striking.

STEPHEN FLOYD: Basically in the schools, you're dealing with the kids who are at least in there-- and not only being in there, they do have a little hope. But then those that I talk to on the streets at night are basically those that have been left out, those that have become rebellious against the system-- not only the system of the way that the city is run but the school system-- and rebellious against the system that they even have at home.


SPEAKER: Three rails, two rails.

SPEAKER: Here it goes.

DAN OLSON: This is a place called The City. It's an alternative school and the drop-in center for young people on Lake Street in South Minneapolis. This evening, in a long noisy game room, kids are playing pool and other games. But it's not the kind of place your average teenager hangs out.

FARLEY COTTON: In that room right there, you have from every gang in Minnesota that they say is labeled be up here.

DAN OLSON: 22-year-old Farley Cotton works at the city and is one of Stephen Floyd's proteges. Cotton used to be a member of the Vice Lords. He's done his share of fighting, stealing, and time in jail. Like many of the young people here, Farley Cotton was a high school dropout.

FARLEY COTTON: I was going to school, I was getting good grades and stuff. But it just wasn't it. I wanted something more. I wanted to do something else. I was working, too, then. I used to work at Esteban. I used to work at Burger King and Esteban's and all that, work through ITS Summer League because my mom worked there. In the summer, we had jobs. And we just wanted to do something else, too.

DAN OLSON: That's something else Cotton wanted was to make money and enjoy a little excitement. The streets and the gangs were a lot more exciting than school.

STEPHEN FLOYD: Farley is been that type of guy who has from the beginning been seen as the leader. He's always been the number one guy.

DAN OLSON: Again, Stephen Floyd.

STEPHEN FLOYD: The problem was that there was nothing or nobody around to mold that into a positive way. And then even he had mentioned himself that he just needed to do more. And he wanted to have a little bit more action, a little bit more activity. So it went more towards the negative.

DAN OLSON: Cotton eventually realized that his life was scripted for years of violence, years of going nowhere. While serving time in the County workhouse, Cotton earned his General Educational Development certificate or GED.

FARLEY COTTON: Because you can't really get no job or get nowhere without no-- no diploma, nowhere. You got to have something behind you other than I quit school and I just need a job. Most places, you got to have a skill unless you just want to be a janitor or something.

DAN OLSON: Cotton got his first important job working at the City. His duties include intervention work with gang members. And preparing himself for a better position somewhere else, he's interested in going back to school to learn a trade. Stephen Floyd considers Farley Cotton one of his success stories.

Though Cotton still has a long way to go to establish himself, Floyd says, he's already setting a positive example for the younger kids.

STEPHEN FLOYD: When they see his circumstances change as far as, OK, the way I get my jewelry and the way I get my clothes, it's through working and working for this. I think the kids see that. And once he begin to get his job and begin to work at the City, a lot of these kids say, man, well, what do I do to get a job?

And that's what's needed. They want to follow. There is a chain reaction that happens when a person that is in a leadership or has the power that he has changes towards the positive.

DAN OLSON: The Minneapolis Police are skeptical. They say Farley Cotton is using his position at the City as a command post for gang activity. This turnaround, they say, is a front. Stephen Floyd is convinced the police are wrong. Meanwhile, Cotton says he's realizing how hard it is to clean a tarnished name.

FARLEY COTTON: They stopped me for anything. Anything go around, I get stopped if I'm around that area. I'd be blocks away. They see me, I did it. I had something to do with it.

DAN OLSON: Farley Cotton says it's too easy for politicians and educators and social workers to give up on the kids they consider hardcore trouble. He says the kind of people who make the difference to kids in gangs are people like Steven Floyd, people who work on the street, and who understand the bleak world that gangs come from.

Floyd says it takes patience to work with people like Farley Cotton. Change can take a long time. And the social worker has to have a personal stake in each kid.

STEPHEN FLOYD: I just involved myself because I really love these guys. When I see a group of these guys break out in a fight and I see them strategizing the gangs and the way they would approach to attack this one gang, I see a lot of talent in there whether it's wrong for what they're doing. I love these guys because the ability and the talent that they have to strategize and to come up with something, it shows me the positive potential that is within them.

DAN OLSON: Young people who drop out of school often do so because they've come to hate school. They can't stand trying to beat the school bell every day. The reasons are many-- dissatisfaction with teaching methods, the sense that teachers don't like or care about them, sometimes because they feel mistreated. There

Are several private schools in Minneapolis that provide alternatives to public school.


Here in a small office building at 1911 Nicollet Avenue, students and teachers are lined up at the lunch counter. This is the Minneapolis Urban League Street Academy, a program which serves about 60 Black youths. The scene looks like any gathering of rambunctious high school students but almost all of these kids either dropped out or were kicked out of public schools.

Lavetta Roofs is a 17-year-old senior, who quit public school but signed up at the street Academy.

LAVETTA ROOFS: Before I went here, we call it the dummy school because that's how its reputation was. If you got kicked out of school, you go to Street Academy because from 9:00 to 12:00-- hey, who wouldn't want to go to school from 9:00 to 12:00?

PERRY PRICE: We are here to serve those students who really aren't serviceable anywhere else.

SPEAKER: Perry Price is director of Education for the Minneapolis Urban League and head of the Street Academy. He says a lot of the students here use drugs. Some have served time in correctional facilities. A few claim to be in gangs. And many of the girls are already mothers.

Price says some kids are simply following in their parents' footsteps.

PERRY PRICE: In some cases, we've had parents who were alcoholics, of course, some who were selling drugs, some who were prostitutes and trying to engage our students into doing some of those kinds of things. It's sort of a vicious cycle.

DAN OLSON: The Street Academy's mission is to break that cycle and turn the students into productive citizens. The school can't afford to offer much more than basic courses. But it does offer things the public schools don't-- smaller classes, short days, little homework, special counseling, and help in finding a job.

But there's also an unusual attitude here. Kids aren't allowed to quit when the going gets tough.

SPEAKER: He's up and probably hungry. I might as well stay and watch. What say, son? I don't understand this kind of reading. See, this don't make no sense to me.

STEVE LESLEY: What say, son?

SPEAKER: This-- this don't make sense to me.

SPEAKER: Why read--

STEVE LESLEY: Well, see, now you're talking about being in the ghetto and people talking with a broken pattern.

SPEAKER: Somebody else can read this, though. It don't make sense to me.

STEVE LESLEY: Well, that don't mean you quit because it don't make sense.


SPEAKER: And so that everything in life that don't make sense, you're just going to quit? So you might as well go and get the wine bottle now, right?


STEVE LESLEY: And get started on the drinking because there's a lot of things in this world ain't going to make sense.

SPEAKER: I bet it's going to make more sense than this stuff.

STEVE LESLEY: Well, you try to make sense out of it. Go ahead.

SPEAKER: I nodded yes, I had seen older boys playing--

DAN OLSON: It may sound like teacher Steve Lesley was being hard on this student. But his purpose was simple.

STEVE LESLEY: She wanted to quit. And I just basically told her, hey, if that's how is-- every time that there's something that's not the way you like it, you're going to quit, which we find here at the Street Academy to be one of the main reasons why kids have left the public schools.

v might get a little too hard for them. Instead of meeting it as a challenge, they just want to run and say, hey, I don't get that. I don't understand it. And so I just told her, I said, hey, you might as well get the wine bottle now.

DAN OLSON: Senior Lavetta Roofs says teachers like Steve Lesley make the difference. Lovie, as her friends call her, has a quick smile which flashes behind bright red lipstick. Lovie says public school teachers run roughshod over students.

LAVETTA ROOFS: I was always get mad because-- especially in math because I did not understand and I would ask the teacher. He would get mad because I didn't understand. You do this, this, and that. And I hate-- it's frustrating. And when I get frustrated, I get really angry and upset. And so instead of just getting frustrated and angry, I just wouldn't come to that class.

DAN OLSON: One of Lovie's friends is Steve Austin, a strapping 18-year-old junior who slouches in his chair and mends a broken menthol cigarette as he talks. Steve says he's been in jail twice, was kicked out of Henry High School for making trouble. A few months ago, a diploma didn't seem in the cards. But now that's changing.

STEVE AUSTIN: I respect more all the teachers here because they give me respect, so I respect them, too. And I do all the work that they give me. Well, I try. If it's hard, I ask them for help. So it's easier for me to get a passing grade here. And I like that.

DAN OLSON: Schools like the Street Academy have been criticized for maintaining basement level academic standards. Director Perry Price acknowledges that students aren't expected to bury themselves in books. If they were, he says, they'd be back on the streets and probably breaking the law.

But Price also warns that the street Academy can't be a cure-all because it can't salvage every kid who comes in off the streets.

PERRY PRICE: There are some students that we really thought that could make it, could do right. But what we call, they just went totally to the left. Quit school, went out there, and maybe ladies started becoming prostitutes, guys drug dealers. And we just don't know what happened or what went wrong. But when they first came in or first tried, they were doing excellent work.

DAN OLSON: By at least one standard, the Street Academy appears fairly successful. Three of its graduates are now in college. More than half of the dozen or so seniors finish the program each year. But Price says success can't be measured just by graduation rates. Sometimes it's a success when a student simply shows up for school each day or finds a full time job.



SPEAKER: What was that? N-41?

SPEAKER: Mm-hmm. B-14.


DAN OLSON: Similar approaches for different kids are found a few miles away at the Center School in South Minneapolis, where today a Bingo game is underway. Like the Black students at the Street Academy, the young Native Americans here don't fit into the public school system.

Native American students have the highest dropout rate of any minority group in Minnesota. Statewide, an estimated 16% quit high school before graduation last school year. But in Minneapolis, 27% gave up on school last year. Junior Brad Tierney dropped out of public school, vowing never to return.

BRAD TIERNEY: They started getting me for being tardy, started giving me detention, started suspending me just for little reasons. So I just quit, too much trouble.

DAN OLSON: But Brad didn't have anything to do, couldn't find a job. And he enrolled in the Center School. The five teachers here try to build a bridge between the students' native culture and the dominant white culture. Chemical dependency counselor Gail Anderson says the school's mission is to provide a haven for Native American students.

GAIL ANDERSON: The idea is to make this a safe place so that they will keep coming. But not to totally disassociate from the outside world that I think by bringing in some of the current event classes, the life skills classes, the drug education, the career Ed. The outside world is brought in.

DAN OLSON: English teacher Frank Camaronie says the bridge between the Native American culture and the mainstream won't be crossed until students get the self-confidence to venture forward. And that's one of the primary missions of the Center School.

FRANK: A lot of programs, school means competition-- good grades, better grades, being a star in sports, being outstanding in something. And for every winner, there's 999 losers. And what we're trying to do here is to make everybody a winner in some respect and to get more comfortable with what they do know but to be able to feel comfortable enough to reach out to see other things that they might not get into on their own.


DAN OLSON: Dropping out of school has a long, even honorable, history.

Back during the Depression years, of course, youngsters dropped out to get jobs to help their-- feed the family and to supplement the family budget.

SPEAKER: For 20 years, Harry Davis has been a member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.

HARRY DAVIS: The only difference that we had that the students-- many of the students today don't have is that we had family and parents to challenge us. I remember my older brothers and sisters, they-- during the Depression years, they had to quit school,

Junior high school and high school and go to work so the family could eat. I was the youngest, not only did my mother and my father say, well, here you're going to graduate from high school here. You're going to go to college.

But my brothers and sisters said, Harry, you're going to go to high school. You're going to get your diploma. You're going to go to college. That's not present today. And that's the problem.

DAVID BENNETT: My father went to school, my mother went to school at the turn of the century. And the expectation was for them that they would go through the 8th grade.

DAN OLSON: David Bennett is superintendent of Schools in Saint Paul.

DAVID BENNETT: The consequences of not finishing 8th grade, much less not finishing 12th grade in 1900, even 1950-- consequences were you could still probably find a job. The consequences now are just much more dire for those who do not finish 12th grade education. Literally, there is no employment out there for them.

NANCY HITE: I do see dropping out of school and/or lack of education for young people as the most devastating problem that faces them, especially in the 1980s as we move into more and more of a technologically oriented society.

DAN OLSON: Nancy Hite is the executive director of Youth Diversion Services in Minneapolis. Hundreds of that city's dropouts are seen each year by her staff. The program offers counseling and referral services to kids who don't make it in the public school system.

NANCY HITE: I think the tendency is to read the good news. What we see in the paper most often is the good news about the high graduation rate and what the SAT scores were for kids who graduated. And Minnesota really has a strong heritage of support for education.

I think we're proud of the high level of achievement that we have in our schools. And I think that we should be. And in fact, I think it's my own strong background in that area that makes me feel so strongly about wanting to provide the same kind of support for the kids who are disenfranchised.

DAN OLSON: Why do kids drop out of school? The experts say there's no such thing as a typical dropout. But the factors that usually lead to dropping out sound pretty much the same.

Most of those factors are links in a chain of poverty that binds these kids into a disadvantaged life-- instability or unhealthy conditions at home, a bad start in the early grades of school, early involvement in sex, drugs, or crime, and finally a growing sense that school is not relevant, that it offers little hope for the future.

Diane Hedin, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Youth Development.

DIANE HEDIN: The initial short-term benefits from dropping out probably are very considerable for kids. For example, if you've been in a place that you don't have any friends there, you don't get along, the teachers seem not to like you, you can't do the work, you think it's meaningless, and there's nothing satisfying about going to school, well, then dropping out of school seems like just the answer to a dream.

DAN OLSON: The dropout rate nationwide dwarfs the number of dropouts in Minnesota. It's estimated that 700,000 kids quit school each year in this country, a dropout rate of nearly 25%. State education officials say some 8,600 kids quit Minnesota high schools each year. That's a dropout rate of about 3.6%.

SALLY OLSEN: Compared to Mississippi or some other place, it's very small. It's minuscule.

DAN OLSON: Republican State Representative Sally Olsen of Saint Louis Park is the outgoing chair of the House Education Finance subcommittee.

SALLY OLSEN: But then if you come back home and say, what is the cost to the citizens of Minnesota for a youngster? 8,000 youngsters who have dropped out of school and can't read, can't write, can't support themselves will be a continuing burden on the welfare system in the state of Minnesota, may be a burden on our prison systems.

What is the cost of that? And I think you have to look at it that way.

DAN OLSON: One recent study shows that the cost of dropping out to the student, the state, and the nation is staggering. Researchers at UCLA found that each dropout earns some $260,000 less over a lifetime than a student who finishes high school. Professor James Catterall of UCLA then applied that number to the 1 million students across the country who dropped out of the 1981 graduating class.

JAMES CATTERALL: You come up with $229 billion over the lifetime of this high school class. This is over the next 45 years. That's in terms of income.

Now, if we take the fraction of income that ends up in public budgets, there's a loss of tax revenue of about 30% of that. So close to $70 billion are lost in tax revenues over the lifetimes of this one high school class as a result of their dropping out of school.

DAN OLSON: Catterall says there's an additional $6 or $7 billion the nation will pay in welfare to those dropouts to compensate for their under-education. It's probably impossible to come up with an exact price tag for dropouts in Minnesota. But a bit of thinking indicates the figure is steep.

Gisela Konopka, retired University of Minnesota professor and founder of the Center for Youth Development.

GISELA KONOPKA: If you want to count money, count what it costs to place a child into delinquency institutions, into group homes-- just plain money. I don't have the figure in my head, but they are incredibly high.

DAN OLSON: Public officials of all stripes are coming to realize that a dropout rate of any size, no matter how small, is a significant social ill. City officials in Minneapolis see dropping out as a major part of a disturbing trend in their city, the breeding of a new underclass of children.

Dick Mammen of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board.

DICK MAMMEN: The children are now the poorest age group, the poorest group of people in America and certainly in this city. We have a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that we as a society for the first time really looked at this generation being worse off, the coming generation being worse off than any other generation prior.

DAN OLSON: According to city surveys, the number of residents under 18 is declining. But the percentage of children living in poverty is on the rise. Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser says poor minority children in his city are increasingly born in bad health, get a substandard education, have trouble finding decent jobs, and end up on welfare.

DON FRASER: And the problem is that we not only lose the productivity of these youngsters as they grow up to be adults, but they in turn then can perpetuate those kinds of same trends. They can in turn become the parents of a new generation.

And it really isn't-- it really isn't working for those youngsters. It's not working for the community. So everybody is losing.

DAN OLSON: Joleen Durken of the Minnesota Education Department says there used to be an attitude that society could afford a certain number of dropouts because those youngsters could still find reasonable low skilled jobs. But as the economy changes from industry to services, workers need a better education. There are fewer and fewer jobs for dropouts.

JOLEEN DURKEN: As we look at the question of, how do we change the social fabric of our world so that the economy is better in the future than it is today? One of the natural questions to ask is, do we have too many school dropouts? Is a few too many? Can we afford a few?

DAN OLSON: Dropping out, a small problem with a big cost. You'd think a small problem would be easily remedied. But in this case, it isn't. One of the reasons is sheer lack of information. The key to understanding the dropout problem is knowing how many youngsters leave school.

But in spite of all the numbers and percentages you've heard so far, no one knows for certain how many dropouts there are in Minnesota. Saint Paul School Superintendent David Bennett.

DAVID BENNETT: It is something next to impossible to compare dropout statistics among school districts among states without making very, very sure that the accounting procedure and assumptions are the same.

DAN OLSON: Luanne Nyberg is director of the Children's Defense Fund Minnesota Project. She says dropout rates are very inaccurate, especially when it comes to the issue of teen pregnancy.

LUANNE NYBERG: From talking to people that work with youth in the community, they consistently tell me that they believe that over half the girls that drop out of high school drop out because of pregnancy. Now, the statistics don't show that because the statistics don't collect that category.

And so we're going to have to start keeping these statistics so that we can understand what's going on out there in the world so that we can fix it. A study in Minneapolis found that pregnancy and motherhood are the reason 80% of female dropouts say they left school.

But the state doesn't count pregnancy as a motivation for dropping out. The state categorizes pregnancy as a temporary disability and not the cause for those students to be chalked up as a permanent loss to the school system. Critics say that policy and other accounting problems mean that the official number of dropouts in Minnesota is far too low that the state and local schools are undercounting the problem.

Royce Helmbrecht of the Minneapolis Public Schools says the official tallies are lower than the actual number of kids who've dropped out. Helmbrecht is the person who counts dropouts for the Minneapolis school system. He says the problem is that dropouts move so much, they're hard to track.

ROYCE HELMBRECHT: They come and go. Some of them have got jobs, and so there may be a little more stable but a lot of them can't hang on to a job. And so they just move around trying to find work or whatever. It's just difficult to track those kids down to find out are they really in school or aren't they.

DAN OLSON: Helmbrecht says there's not much the schools can do to make the count more accurate.

ROYCE HELMBRECHT: The primary problem is kids just don't generally walk into the building and tell you, well, I'm going to drop out. Let me fill out the dropout survey. Usually what happens is they just flat out-- they don't show up, and we can't find them.

DAN OLSON: Luanne Nyberg of the Children's Defense Fund says dropouts could be tracked and helped. But it would take a community effort to do it.

LUANNE NYBERG: Most of those kids are still right in the families, right on the blocks, right in the neighborhoods, where they were two weeks ago when they were in school or a month ago. It's not all that difficult to make a few phone calls when you notice a kid hasn't been in school for a week or two or didn't come back in the fall.

If we put someone in charge of working this out, thinking this all through, figuring out what the system should be, how to get the volunteers, et cetera, with a year of planning, $15,000 or $20,000 for planning, we could get this up and running with very little added expense.

DAN OLSON: Some wonder why the public schools can't handle the dropout problem on their own. The answer to that question is the focus of a complex debate and the fingers point in different directions. Saint Paul School chief David Bennett.

DAVID BENNETT: We are the legally empowered vehicle for educating youth. I think it's absolutely clear that we can be instructionally effective with all of our students.

DAN OLSON: What Bennett says must make a lot of sense to a great many taxpayers. But so would the view of Bennett's counterpart in Minneapolis. Superintendent Richard Green acknowledges the gravity of the dropout problem. But Green is most concerned with those that do show up for class, not those who don't.

RICHARD GREEN: Well, in terms of priorities, it is not the highest priority because we have to be directed toward students who are in school. We have to make sure that students who do take advantage of the opportunity, whatever their background or experiences might be, that we're doing the best possible job with those who come.

DAN OLSON: The debate over how much attention schools should devote to dropouts is complicated by a relatively recent development. A string of national reports criticizing public education in this country is creating intents pressure on schools to do a better job. The result is more emphasis on attendance, student test results-- in short, better performance. Some say this kind of pressure squeezes out the kids who can't keep up.

DAVID BENNETT: I don't believe that's true.

DAN OLSON: Again, David Bennett of the Saint Paul Schools.

DAVID BENNETT: When it is generally communicated, there's sort of an ethos of feeling in the high school that you're expected to perform there, that that sense of performance is an expectation on the part of students but also an expectation on the part of staff, that that can have a general effect of actually increasing the holding power of the school rather than decreasing it.

SPEAKER: Some critics charge that the toughening of school discipline policies also forces out marginal students. Minneapolis School Chief Richard Green responds that a line has to be drawn.

RICHARD GREEN: In the long run, when you establish standards like that in an educational culture, students come to accept that. People tend to achieve at the level that you expect them to achieve. And so while you may see a blip here and there in our rates of attendance, which lead to dropouts or non-attendance, my sense is that we're on the right track about this issue.

DAN OLSON: Retired University of Minnesota Professor Gisela Konopka says the pressure for excellence goes beyond the schools and that American society's obsession with reaching the top simply sets young people up for a disillusioning fall.

GISELA KONOPKA: I think, for instance, there's something we tell young people that I hear all the time. The world is so wonderful, you can be whatever you want to be. I think that's a lie. There's so many things that get into the way once in a while. And they should know that and that it's not always their fault.

DAN OLSON: A number of school districts across the country are experimenting with ways to lure dropouts back to the classroom. And many of them make it easier for the student to achieve.


(SINGING) You want to get back

Back on the track

Education, that's where it's at

You can work a job

Get back in school

Listen up, here's the rule to get back.

If you're 16 years or older, you can get back--

DAN OLSON: Back on the Track is a new program in the Columbus, Ohio School District. Dropouts are encouraged to join a program, which offers no frills, flexible hours, and a diploma at the end. Lucretia Williams is supervisor of the Columbus Program.

LUCRETIA WILLIAMS: There's no music, no art, no lunch program. You come into school and do your one, two, or three classes. And then you go home. And if you work a night job, then you can, say, start second or third period if you're unable to get up at 8:00 because you work late into the evening. Students can really design their own schedule to meet their parental responsibilities or work obligations.

DAN OLSON: Some Minnesota schools are trying similar ideas, reaching further to meet the needs of dropouts Dick Mammen of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board says these efforts are essential.

DICK MAMMEN: We might need to develop other policies and practices within the public schools to give kids second and third and fourth chances. When do we give up? When they give up?

DAN OLSON: Gisela Konopka says there's another element that can't be overlooked-- teachers. She says better motivated teachers are needed in the schools. And that means paying teachers more. Konopka says the influence of a good teacher can help save a bad kid.

GISELA KONOPKA: For instance, not so long ago, I just met a young man, I call him. He's 17 years old in one of our delinquency institutions. And I was very interested that he was a dropout. He hated school. He did become delinquent.

The interesting thing is that there was a teacher in that delinquency institution that somehow stimulated him so that he thinks now mathematics is the greatest thing in the world. He loves figures. He works on it all the time. That's rare, but nobody discovered it.

SPEAKER: Dropouts are a serious problem, though the experts can't be sure how big a problem. We know dropouts cost society a lot of money. But the costs and the causes are widely dispersed. Some say the ultimate solution lies in the community as a whole, not just schools and government.

DON FRASER: What we always expect is that when we work at these things as a community that circumstances should be getting better for everybody who's growing up here. But my impression is that that's not what's happening.

DAN OLSON: Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser is making the problem of Inner City Youth, a major focus of his administration. Dropouts are seen as a key issue. Fraser, push for creation of a Youth Coordinating Board to see what services exist for young people and what more is needed.

The coordinating board's ambitious goal is to develop a 20-year plan for youth in Minneapolis that would help coordinate very diverse programs. Dick Mammen is the board's executive director.

DICK MAMMEN: A lot of the services that are provided in this community have been provided for a number of years. And we're not totally sure if those services are relevant to children and families in this community now.

DAN OLSON: Some state officials are also working on the dropout problem. But they're individual Crusades could hardly be described as a front burner political movement at the Capitol. Saint Cloud Democrat Jim Peeler is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He's pushing a bill that would establish three experimental learning centers for students who have trouble with traditional public schools.

The measure would cost $150,000, not much considering the problem. But Peeler says more money is not necessarily the answer. He says there's a lot of money being spent already.

DICK MAMMEN: Overall, a better coordination of those dollars can probably create a much bigger impact with very little dollar increase in general. I think that dollars right now are fractioned and set apart and aren't really coordinated.

DAN OLSON: Republican lawmaker Sally Olsen says the State Department of Education is expected to propose about $5 million in programs to prevent dropouts, to improve early childhood education, and programs for problem learners, and a program for adolescent parents and their children.

But the state faces a lean budget cycle. And Olsen says dropouts may well sit at the back of a busload of other issues, including welfare reform.

SALLY OLSEN: We're in a terrible struggle in terms of-- no tax increase, not wanting to cut spending. So I think you're going to see a great deal of anxiety, a great deal of discussion about where the money should be spent.

Should the money be spent on dropout programs for youngsters in the school? Or should money be spent on welfare reform programs which will permit AFDC mothers to have good child care and medical benefits so that they can go out to work. These are the kinds of tensions. I think that you're going to see.

DAN OLSON: It's ironic, some would say, that lawmakers would feel pressed to remedy welfare before dropouts when the two are so closely linked. Even though he says dropout prevention can save a state many times, the amount spent on programs, UCLA researcher James Catterall isn't surprised at how lawmakers decide what to do first.

JAMES CATTERALL: Often, legislatures can have somewhat diminished enthusiasm for that type of spending when they want to see returns more quickly and want to attach themselves to things that have obvious and short term payoffs because of interests in being re-elected.

DAN OLSON: And there's another political dimension, officials expect increasing competition for government dollars in coming years. Competition that will pit America's elderly against its young. Minneapolis Deputy Mayor Jan Hively.

JAN HIVELY: You've got dependents at both end of the working generation, children and senior citizens. Senior citizens live longer. They are very active both as voters and as lobbyists. And they have a strong stake in the system.

On the other end of the scale, for example, here in Minneapolis only 18% of our households have kids of school age. And that means that there are few households who have direct vested interest in protecting the interests of children.

DAN OLSON: James Catterall says that polarization may favor the seniors of today but not tomorrow.

JAMES CATTERALL: At the turn of the century, three people working will be contributing. For every one person receiving Social Security, one of those three is going to be a minority. One of those three is going to-- at least if things don't change-- either be a dropout or be a rather stark underachiever educationally, that doesn't bode too well for the ability of the country to support its senior citizens in the way senior citizens are somewhat accustomed to being supported right now.

DAN OLSON: There are many programs aimed at the different facets of Minnesota's dropout problem. Some state and local officials are trying to make those programs more effective. But it's clear that the kids who have quit school outnumber the programs.

To Nancy Hite of Minneapolis Youth Diversion Services, ignoring the dropout problem would be a serious mistake.

NANCY HITE: Many of them are in pain on a daily basis because of their inability to be successful or to find a meaningful place for themselves or to feel loved or to feel a sense of achievement. The burden has to be on adults to be approachable and to work with those kids. I don't think we can ask the kids themselves to become something that is counter to their environment without giving them the resources that they need to do that.

DAN OLSON: Retired University of Minnesota Professor Gisela Konopka says, we simply need to change the way we think about kids, whether or not they drop out.

GISELA KONOPKA: Basically, it's an attitude of what I call respect for the young and an understanding of their needs and not be afraid of them. Enjoy them.

[WHODINI, "GROWING UP"] It's all just a part of growing up

Things are going to be hard

But don't give up

It's all just a part of growing up

When we get to the point when we get fed up

DAN OLSON: Dropping Out, Falling Off the Bottom Rung was written and produced by Stephen Smith with reporting by Bill Catlin and Dan Olson. Technical directors, Scott Yankus and Bill Paladino, executive producer Rich Deetman. The song "Growing Up" was performed by Whodini. This is Dan Olson.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

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