Getting dropouts back in school

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Tierra Watts didn't hesitate when taking responsibility for dropping out of school after ninth grade. "I was mad at my mom and I thought I was her equal. I was immature and so busy fighting with her that I ended up hurting myself."

So goes the story of so many of Pittsburgh's high school dropouts.

We often see young people in the throes of teen angst making decisions they could end up regretting for a lifetime. These are the children that the Hill House Passport Academy, a charter drop-out recovery school planned for the Hill District, wants to help. A blended-learning school that combines traditional classroom work with online curriculum, it is modeled after a very successful school in Chicago that boasts a 95 percent graduation rate.

The Hill House Association knows the challenges of out-of-school youth, having worked with them for decades. We know that there are many paths that lead a young person to eschew high school with dreams that it will all somehow work out.

"My mom was really sick with diabetes and had two heart attacks," said Sha'lynn Patterson, a 21-year-old GED student enrolled in the Hill House out-of-school youth program. "I ended up having a baby who was disabled and by the 11th grade I couldn't take care of them both. I was so stressed out that I finally gave up."

These stories of families in poverty with unstable housing, challenging family dynamics, unmet educational needs and medical crises dot the landscape of Pittsburgh, scarring our youth and limiting their promise. As a community, we know it should not be this way, nor does it have to be.

How substantial is the challenge?

In a 2006 study, Rand Corp. estimated that 35 percent of Pittsburgh students drop out of high school. That rate climbs alarmingly to over 50 percent for black males.

While we are pleased to read recent reports that indicate Pennsylvania's overall dropout rate is declining, we still face sobering statistics here in Pittsburgh. In 2011 alone, 680 African-American students disappeared from the high school rolls.

Sadly, there aren't many alternatives for youth who have dropped out. Once these children are out of the system, there are few schools or agencies calling for their return. There is, however, a juvenile delinquency system that sees an increasing number of youngsters who, without viable alternatives, choose crime to take care of their basic needs or because they are so alienated from mainstream society.

William T. Simmons, director of the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, told me that over 50 percent of Shuman's detainees don't have high school diplomas or GEDs. "I talk to these kids everyday and they want to do better," he said. "Those who have at least completed high school or the equivalent are more cooperative and easier to help. They have tasted success and are better able to make plans for the future."

Sha'lynn Patterson confessed that she's never been good at math. "Even when I was in first grade they knew I had some problems."

After migrating through multiple school districts in multiple cities, she got lost. Her math skills lagged years behind. Bright but daunted by an uncertain future, Ms. Patterson clearly understands how dropping out has affected her.

So does Juawane Dennison. At 20, he is an engaging kid with a bright smile. He is smart and highly motivated. "I definitely would have gone to a drop-out recovery high school if one had been available," he said. "I had major attendance issues and there was nobody to really push me to go to school. Eventually I missed so much time I was asked to leave. I really regret it, but I'm working now to get my education so I can move up."

Both Ms. Patterson and Mr. Dennison are excited about the new high school and how young people who've dropped out will be able to take advantage of it. They freely offered advice on what they think will help make it a success.

"You need to hire good role models and counselors who don't get frustrated and want to see you do well," Mr. Dennison suggested. "It would have been a lot of help if good day care had been available," Ms. Patterson added. Both are part of the proposed school's model.

The Hill House Association now awaits a decision from the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, the body that approves charter schools in Pittsburgh. In emotional testimony before the board, 20-year-old Ruben Franklin summed up his thoughts about the school. "It's the second chance that everyone wants and that young people deserve."


Cheryl Hall-Russell is president and CEO of Hill House Association (


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