"Hey, I saw Ryan this weekend."
"At the store in Lakewood where he works."
"How's he doing?"
"Okay I guess, he dropped out of school."
Damn, I thought, not another one. "Well, if you run into him again, tell him to stop in and see me."
Two weeks later Ryan walked through the door of my classroom and flopped himself down in the big old high-backed chair behind my desk.
"Everything is still the same." he said softly as he looked around the room and smiled.
The last time I'd seen Ryan was a little over a year ago when we stood in the hallway and he told me he was leaving Max Hayes High School.
He was failing all of his classes, yet ironically, he was one of the smartest kids in the school. He hadn't failed to learn, he just didn't come to class. He hadn't been sick, he was bored out of his mind. The school had an attendance policy mandating a failing grade for any student who had ten or more absences during a semester, and Ryan had exceeded his limit.
Several years ago , when Ryan was a ninth grader in my art class, I could see right away that he was different. He was a talented artist as well as a bright kid. He would complete drawing excuses and unit projects with time to spare. So, I would introduce him to new mediums, or have him work on a contest entry, while the rest of the class caught up to him. That summer I was able to secure an internship for him at the David Davis Studio in Cleveland. There he worked with resident sculptor Mike Spencer, completing a monumental work of art, as well as creating a couple small stainless pieces of his own.
The following year he began cutting early morning and late afternoon classes. His excuse? He was bored. He would finish his assignments, and fall asleep while the teacher worked with the rest of the class. He figured he could do all the work for a week in one class period. Why should he sit through five? When I checked with his teachers they all agreed. He did 'A' work but was failing due to attendance.
The next year he was still repeating most of his classes, even though he knew the content, so mid-year, Ryan decided to transfer to his neighborhood high school, John Marshall. There the situation was not much different. Teachers spent the majority of class time working with the students who needed the most help. He disengaged, and once again his attendance became sporadic. He was failing his classes. He would have to pay to make up the classes in night school. Due to budget cuts, tuition-free summer school was only free to seniors. Ryan couldn't afford the tuition, and couldn't bear the thought of sitting through the same classes yet again, so he just quit. He dropped out of school in the spring and got two jobs.
Now, at 17, he is working as a roofer during the day, and at a game store in the evening. I couldn't help but wonder what his chances will be to succeed without a high school diploma. We talked about the GED program, and he promised to look into it. We also talked about re-enrolling in Max Hayes night school program once he earns enough money to pay the tuition.
I couldn't help but feel bad. We failed again. One more young Clevelander without a high school diploma. We had failed to give this young man an education. We couldn't keep his attention. The professional educators, with our degrees in human behavior and psychology, couldn't educate a good, bright, talented kid. He wasn't a behavior problem, he didn't need special education, he didn't attract attention, and he fell through the cracks. We have thousands of these young adults in Cleveland. Each one of them represents almost a quarter of a million dollars of lost income over the next forty years.
My mantra - Education equals Economic Development. While the school district grapples with improving test scores and trying to improve graduation rates, we have a city full of drop-outs. Cleveland had the lowest graduation rate in the country back in 1998, only 28%. It has steadily improved to a pathetic 50%, but those who never received their diplomas still live here. They make up Cleveland's workforce. Why are we shocked to read that Cleveland is one of the poorest cities in the country? Why are we surprised that they don't vote? They are the electorate. What are Cleveland's civic leaders doing to address that problem? Where will we find jobs for the undereducated?
These people used to find employment in the region's factories. Now the industry uses new technologies that require new skills. They can't find workers.
(Read more on that here) We have a solution...!
One proven strategy to keep students in school is through the arts. The arts keep bright, creative, kids engaged. A group of civic-minded folks from Greater Cleveland understood this, and began a non-profit organization called the Human Fund whose first benefit will be dedicated to raising money for the All-City arts program in the Cleveland schools. A silent auction of student work will be held at the gala event on October 22nd at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I will be submitting several landscape paintings by Ryan to the student exhibit. Check out their web site, attend the benefit if you can, bid on a work of art or donate to the cause. You may just be able to help one more kid stay in school.