Dallas Alternative School Helps Young People at Risk
By Vicki Wolf, KERA 90.1 Independent Reporter
Dallas, TX – Vicki Wolf, Independent Reporter for KERA 90.1: John Fullinwider conducts Friday Class at Metropolitan Education Center (MEC). Students voluntarily attend the discussion session for extra credit, and today the room is packed. One student finds paper and a pencil for her child to draw on so he will stay occupied while she attends class. The 20 members of the class settle in to discuss the topic of the day: social forces that contribute to dropping out.
John Fullinwider, Teacher, Metropolitan Education Center: Christy, what's your number one thing there?
Christy, Student, Metropolitan Education Center: Pregnancy, financial problems, family demands, and laziness.
Student, Metropolitan Education Center: Everything really got worse when I was in 7th grade and junior high, because I went to a school where a lot of people didn't care, a lot of teachers didn't care, and basically a lot of people stayed in trouble.
Student, Metropolitan Education Center: I'm no good at math at all, and I've been to four high schools already. I had geometry for four years, and I don't know how many geometry teachers. And they told me, "I don't know why you even bother coming. Stop asking me questions. Just go home." And that's one of the main reasons I didn't like going to school.
Wolf: Thousands of students in Dallas are failing to finish school. A recent report for the district shows that less than 50% of students who enter 9th grade receive high school diplomas four years later. Nationally, the dropout rate is estimated to be 15-25%, and in large cities it's probably much higher. Metropolitan Education Center was created as an alternative school in the 1970s to address the growing dropout problem. Coming in, each student receives an assessment by a team that includes a school psychologist, three counselors and one social worker. To accommodate students who work and have children, Metropolitan has a longer school year; classes are 8:30 to 12:30, four days a week. John Fullinwider, an award-winning teacher who's been here six years, says the school's approach includes computer-based instruction and a lot of one-on-one time with teachers.
Fullinwider: We have about 200 students on campus at any time, roughly. High schools in Dallas range from 1,500 to 5,000 in size. So there's a great difference there in scale. The scale is less bureaucratic. You can't hide from your education here. And you also can't just disappear and no one asks what happened to you.
Announcement over school PA system: Good morning, I'd like to announce that Alfredo Garcia has completed his graduation requirements and he's now certified for graduation. (Applause from students.)
Wolf: Teachers and administrators at Metropolitan measure success by each student's progress rather than by numbers. This year 84 students, including Alfredo, graduated, and eight more are almost there.
Perla, Student, Metropolitan Education Center: I had a hard time getting where I am right now.
Wolf: Perla, now 18, went from being president of her class in a small middle school to dropping out of Skyline High School. At Metropolitan, she was able to complete her work, and in May she received her diploma. Perla says the flexibility and teacher support students receive at Metropolitan Education Center really help them complete their work.
Perla: Here the teachers communicate with you. They talk to you. They relate to your problems, and they really try to work with you and support you all the time; and that's what helps us believe in ourselves and try to break barriers and break all these stereotypes that are just eating us.
Wolf: This school year, DISD received an eight million dollar grant as part of the Texas Education Agency's initiative to address the dropout problem. The district focused on the self-paced, computer-instruction part of Metropolitan's program. Officials say the 20 new reconnection centers, located at major high schools throughout the district, serve more students and place the learning responsibility on the student, where it should be. But Dr. Linda Soliz, Principal at Metropolitan Learning Center, says computers aren't enough.
Dr. Linda Soliz, Principal, Metropolitan Education Center: You can get a "wow," you can get a raspberry, you can get anything you want off that computer; but it's still not like that genuine smile that comes across to that student. And again, remember these students don't have a lot, or have not had a lot, of that nurturing in their educational experience, and that's why this one is just a little different from the traditionals.
Wolf: Dr. Soliz acknowledges that limited funding restricts what the district can do. Dr. Russell Rumberger, a University of California education professor who has studied the dropout problem, says alternative programs have a hard time competing for funding with regular school programs. It's possible to create effective alternative settings, he says, and they look a lot like Metropolitan.
Dr. Russell Rumberger, Professor of Education, University of California Santa Barbara: A successful program for dropouts addresses the range of issues and problems a dropout has, so they tend to be smaller schools; they tend to be schools that give kids a lot of individual attention. They tend to be schools that address not only their academic needs, but their social needs as well.
Wolf: Rumberger says to reduce the national dropout rate, school systems will have to change. They need to help at-risk students address the social and academic problems they face and to improve the communities, families and schools that contribute to these problems. He doubts public schools and Americans have the political will for this kind of change. Fullinwider says in the current educational climate, Metropolitan's approach to helping students succeed is getting harder.
Fullinwider: In Texas, we are increasingly regimented in schools. It's all about standardized tests. High school can begin to seem to a student just like test prep. The humanistic side is really lost. We are in a difficult climate for alternative education. But there's a greater need for it than ever, because the more you bureaucratize and regiment the school, the more you are going to need to have alternatives to it.
Wolf: Students in Fullinwider's class at Metropolitan feel accepted here. Here's what they say they've learned.
Student, Metropolitan Education Center: Don't give up. There's nothing you can't do in this world until you give up. And when you get to high school, don't go out there and try to hang with the bad crowd just 'cause you want to be cool. You can be cool just by hangin' by yourself, you know.
Student, Metropolitan Education Center: To the parents, I would say to stay involved in your child's life. Like go to parent-teachers conference and school activities and stuff like that. It really encourages them when parents do stuff like that.
Student, Metropolitan Education Center: Have a positive attitude and patience - a lot of patience - because there's going to be a lot of teachers out there that don't seem to care and everything. But just prove them wrong.
Wolf: For KERA-FM, I'm Vicki Wolf.