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Brown: Dropouts just don't know consequences

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Published:   |   Updated: April 25, 2014 at 11:17 AM

First the bad news: Gulf Coast Academy, a struggling charter school in Largo, will close at the end of the school year.

Now the good news: Gulf Coast Academy, a struggling charter school in Largo, will close at the end of the school year.

While charter schools, which use government money but operate independently, are still a work in progress, one of the good things about them is that the failing ones can be shut down. And no place deserved it more than Gulf Coast Academy. Designed to help students at risk of dropping out, its graduation rate was 7 percent.

Every school district has at least one of these “academies” to siphon off and sequester students who are chronically disruptive and/or failing academically. They are called “alternative” or “continuation” schools because that sounds less offensive than “reservoir school,” or “last chance school,” or “Get rid of these troublemakers and do-nothings so the rest of the students can learn” school. In addition to Gulf Coast, Pinellas County also has another dropout-prevention school, Bayside High School in Clearwater.

How times have changed. In my house growing up, and the homes of my peers, dropping out of school was not an option, even though many of our parents didn't finish high school. Their word was the law, and they were the best dropout-prevention program ever.

When one of my buddies mentioned to his folks the idea of quitting school, his father told him if he dared to do it, he would have to find another place to live.

“This ain't no flophouse,” his old man told him in a sarcastic-but-serious tone. “There ain't gonna be no bums living here.”

My friend's father, who worked in a steel mill, knew the altered economic reality of the times. In the 1950s, an eighth-grade dropout could get good pay at a mill or an automobile plant. Today, a Honda plant in Ohio won't hire you unless you can pass a test of basic mathematical skills. It's the reality of the global economy in the 21st century.

So it amazes me that in this day and age school districts have to deal with hundreds of at-risk students who are likely to drop out. And just how do you define “at-risk?”

The Glossary of Education Reform defines at-risk as “students who face circumstances that could jeopardize their ability to complete school, such as homelessness, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, serious health issues, domestic violence, transiency (as in the case of migrant-worker families), or other conditions, or it may refer to learning disabilities, low test scores, disciplinary problems, grade retentions, or other learning-related factors that could adversely affect the educational performance and attainment of some students.”

One of my sisters, who has taught at a middle school for about 10 years, defines them simply as “kids who bring a whole lot of baggage to school,” mostly from dysfunctional, single-parent homes where education is not a priority. She can tell you who in her seventh- and eight-grade classes is likely to drop out.

It's so sad that thousands of our young people commit career suicide by not completing their secondary education, which is free and available to every child, no matter his socioeconomic status. It's a shame they can't see the consequences of being poorly educated in the 21st century. They have failed themselves, and the nation as well.

Still, the Pinellas school district deserves credit for not giving up on the students sent to these alternative schools. In addition to trying to teach them, they can offer services these kids need, like tutoring, counseling and job training. Many, if not most, won't make it, but they'll never be able to say they weren't given every opportunity to do so.

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