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Striving to Get Students to Drop Back In

YouthBuild, a charter school in the District, is helping Terrell Tutt, left, and Damien Williams, both 21, learn construction skills and earn a GED or high school diploma.
YouthBuild, a charter school in the District, is helping Terrell Tutt, left, and Damien Williams, both 21, learn construction skills and earn a GED or high school diploma. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

Each night, while his peers prepared for the next school day, Michael Barksdale picked out DVDs to watch from the comfort of his living room.

He should have been in 11th grade at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington, but he was so far behind in such core subjects as reading and math that school officials wanted to bump him back two whole grades. So he stayed home and slept late.

Empty days turned into weeks, then into months. When his mother pressed him to go back to school, he fooled her by sneaking out his bedroom window with a knapsack, then "arrived" home through the front door.

One day, he realized that he had become an official high school dropout.

"I was lazy. I didn't really want to go to school, and I said, 'Forget it,' " said Barksdale, 17, who in August resumed his education at YouthBuild, a charter school geared to dropouts.

With that "Forget it," Barksdale became one of thousands of District youths annually who leave high school without a diploma.

As D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) pushes to take control of the 55,000-student public school system, one of the more vexing issues is the dropout rate. An estimated 15 percent of youths never even enroll in high school, and the dropout rate districtwide is more than 50 percent, according to school statistics.

The D.C. Council will hold a hearing today to give young people a chance to join the debate over their education. It is the fourth public hearing on the mayor's proposal.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he wants to get input both from students and dropouts. Fenty proposes making the Board of Education an advisory body and assuming responsibility to build schools and hire the superintendent. The council will vote on the proposal this spring.

"We talk a lot about young people, and oftentimes, we don't meaningfully involve them in the issues that affect their lives," Gray said. "I want to know firsthand what their school environment is like, what the buildings are like, how they interact with their peers, their relationships with teachers, what they consider to be a good teacher."

Several former dropouts interviewed this week have their own ideas to fix the city's ailing schools. They want more tutoring and extra help when they fall behind. And they want parents who set curfews and punish them for missing school.

"We don't want teachers and counselors who are here to get paid," said Tamika "Shelly" Briscoe, 17, who started skipping classes at Cardozo Senior High School last semester after she had trouble in a chemistry class and is now enrolled in a new program that gives students the chance to make up coursework in night classes. "If you don't have teachers who care, then you're not going to come to school."


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