Since he dropped out of high school at 17, Frederick Dixson has wanted to continue his education.
Intermittently homeless, unemployed and locked up, he’s struggled in a variety of programs for dropouts.
Now 22, Dixson thinks he’s finally found a way to graduate. The only catch is that too many other dropouts are thinking the same thing.
Dixson is No. 104 on a waiting list of about 800 students at Indianapolis’ Excel Center, a charter school that opened this fall to give dropouts a second or third chance.
The center, operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, set its enrollment at 200 students, then increased it to 300. But that isn’t enough. More than 1,000 dropouts of all ages have applied, and the applications keep coming.
There are other options for dropouts who want to get their education back on track, but the Excel Center is the only one in Indianapolis that caters exclusively to their needs.
The center, which is just west of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus, features small classes, is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, and offers a wide range of academic and social supports.
The program is unusual in that it is not trying to prevent children from dropping out, but rather rescue those who already have. Nor is it trying to push dropouts toward GEDs — the typical strategy — but rather help them earn high school diplomas.
And that could be an important strategy in increasing the graduation rate in a city frequently cited as having one of the worst dropout problems in the nation.
The main strategy of the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) has been to create smaller alternatives to its large high schools, with the goal of preventing those on the verge of dropping out from doing so.
“We’re trying to plug that hole,” Superintendent Eugene White said.
But to increase the district’s graduation rate, experts say, efforts also must target those such as Dixson who already have quit.
“We used to focus solely on dropout prevention, relying heavily on supplemental programs,” said Chris Sturgis of MetisNet, a consultant to foundations, states and school districts on high school reform.
But the focus is slowly widening, Sturgis said, and school systems are starting to look at dropout “recovery.”
Traditionally, dropouts who want to complete their education enroll in adult school or try to earn a GED. But GED-holders typically earn less and are more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates.
In Indianapolis, there’s no citywide outreach effort to make dropouts aware of options. They often rely on word-of-mouth to know what’s available. As a result, only the most motivated students return for their high school diplomas. And even then, they need to be lucky.
At the Excel Center, the 300 slots were filled using a lottery. About 800 other students were left to wait.
What other cities do
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In Houston, Superintendent Terry Grier each year joins teachers, principals and volunteers to walk the streets in search of dropouts. They’ve found that often just a few minutes of conversation with an adult is all it takes.
Boston educators, too, hit the streets regularly in search of dropouts. They have opened a walk-in re-engagement center to help dropouts find the right programs. In 2008, Philadelphia opened such a center, and the demand has been so great that the city’s alternative programs all have long waiting lists.
These cities are aware of the long-term economic and social benefits of spending money to help dropouts earn a diploma. According to research by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education advocacy group, cutting Indianapolis’ dropout rate in half would produce a $30 million annual increase in consumer spending and $5 million in additional tax revenue.
“The piece that’s lacking here in Indianapolis is just that very thing: the recovery piece,” said Jennifer Oliver, a fellow for strategic initiatives at the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning. “I think people are starting to realize the critical nature of this.”
That’s not to say that nothing has been done. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which approves charter schools, partnered with the Association of High School Innovation to bring Diploma Plus, a network of alternative schools, and GED programs such as YouthBuild to the area, Sturgis said.
Also, IPS has built a network of alternative-education programs. But of those 21 schools, only two — Day Adult High School and the Pacers Academy East — are open to dropouts. And most of the capacity of both is devoted to at-risk students who have yet to quit.
‘Nobody trying to help me’
Dixson was expelled in 10th grade from Tech High School for fighting. After spending time in a juvenile detention center, his first instinct was to return to his old school, but “they wouldn’t let me come back.”
Tech assistant campus administrator David Brunsting said the school lets in anyone younger than 18 because it’s legally obligated to do so. He said the school also generally takes back those older than 18, as long as it’s reasonable for them to graduate by age 22.
Brunsting hypothesized that Dixson had moved out of the school’s boundaries or didn’t have a parent with him when he tried to re-enroll.
Dixson wasn’t sure, but said it might have been a boundary issue. He said he didn’t receive any guidance on where else to go.
“I was just on my own,” he said. “Wasn’t nobody trying to help me.”
Unaware of his options, Dixson decided to drop out and get his GED. Once he was out of the system, no one tracked him down to try and bring him back.
Had Dixson been at a smaller high school, things might have turned out differently. At Indianapolis’ 450-student George Washington Community High School, for instance, keeping tabs on nearly everyone is feasible. When it comes to locating dropouts and finding flexible solutions to persuade them to re-enroll, Principal Deborah Leser said, “there isn’t much we won’t do.”
But most city schools are much larger. Tech, for example, has more than 2,000 students.
“Our focus is on the ones who are here. We have so many students who are chronically truant,” Brunsting said. “It would be almost impossible to then also go after the ones who’ve dropped out.”
Potential dropouts can be identified early on — by looking at their academics, attendance and behavior — although students drop out for numerous reasons. For some, such as Dixson, it was an expulsion. Others are overwhelmed or bored with school. Frequently, dropping out is a response to a personal issue, such as pregnancy or needing to look after an ailing family member.
Less is known about why students come back. A study conducted by California-based research group WestEd of the San Bernardino (Calif.) City Unified School District found that students primarily returned to school because they were unable to get jobs or because teachers or others at the school made intensive efforts to bring them back.
But the study also showed limited success. About 30 percent of dropouts followed in the WestEd study returned to high school; 18.4 percent of them earned their diploma.
Inside two programs
Dixson tried several GED programs, but he never completed them and did not take the exam. He also tried IPS’ Day Adult High School, which he heard about from friends. The school, at 1301 E. 16th St., works with 300 to 400 students a semester, but has room for more, according to Principal Vickie Nowlin.
“Too many is not an issue,” she said. “We’ll sit them all.”
Many students, both dropouts and those at risk of dropping out, are drawn to Day Adult by its small size and the chance to develop relationships with teachers.
The school also has flexible scheduling, and there are multiple opportunities for students to enroll during the year.
Day Adult’s classes typically have from 20 to 25 students, but that was still too distracting for Dixson. “I couldn’t focus,” he said.
Within weeks, he left the program.
The Excel Center takes up two floors in a building at 1635 W. Michigan St., adjacent to Goodwill Education Initiatives. The school is small, works around student schedules and uses computer-based learning so students go at their own pace. Courses are available online, and students are allowed to check out laptops.
The school provides child care, opportunities to earn college credit through a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College and a life coach to inspire students to think about “what comes next,” said Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill Education Initiatives, a nonprofit branch of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana.
Every student’s schedule includes time for tutoring and studying with specialists. Excel’s budget for 2010-11 is about $2.5 million, 80 percent of which comes from state funding.
“The Excel Center is really thinking innovatively and creatively about how to address student needs,” said Christine Marson, assistant director of the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation.
It was Excel’s classrooms that sold Dixson. Painted in soft blues and greens, the rooms are small, allowing for no more than 18 students. He hopes the small classes will make it easier for him to focus.
He says he’s ready to take school seriously this time around.
“I need my education,” Dixson said. “I need to do something.”
But for now, like hundreds of others, he waits.
A version of this article appeared in The Indianapolis Star on October 31, 2010.