Want to build the middle class? Then keep 13-year-olds from falling through the cracks and failing high school.
Phillips, a former education reporter who works at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, chronicles that group’s Freshmen OnTrack program, which works throughout the city’s school system to foster retention of at-risk students. In an opening case study, she highlights a Latino boy who, having been rejected for a “selective enrollment” public school, entered a school that would not challenge him and quietly began to fade away. For decades, Phillips notes, a child entering Chicago’s public school system had roughly the same chance of dropping out as graduating, and at tremendous social cost—for, she adds, “if ninth grade is the make-or-break year for high school graduation, then it is also the pivotal year for a shot at the middle class.” That’s of material interest, for over a lifetime of earning, a high school graduate will bring in about $670,000 more than a high school dropout, and that means more tax revenue for municipalities, states, and even the national government. Performance in ninth grade turns out to be predictive but by no means irreversible, and programs like OnTrack are meant not just to help students adjust to the rigors of schoolwork, but also to form connections to school and cohort by such means as peer mentoring. Naturally, school administrations are all about numbers and testing, and the OnTrack program doesn’t neatly fit with some of those aims and perhaps even some of the aims of the children themselves. As one high school principal says, “We want to be on-track because we want to change outcomes for kids…a kid doesn’t give a shit if they are on track.” Phillips makes it clear that changing outcomes is reason enough to keep the program alive—and to see it replicated elsewhere.
A good case, if one largely of interest to educational policymakers and activists.