'For Sake of All': Health affects school dropout rate
6:03 am on Wed, 09.25.13
Michael Jordan probably had no idea of the trouble he was causing 7th graders who couldn’t afford the athlete’s overpriced sneakers.
"Not wearing Jordans was when my problems really started," said Malik Avery, now 18. "In fact, I didn’t wear any designer outfits because I couldn’t afford them. So I got picked on a lot.”
At the time, Avery was a student in the Riverview Gardens School District. Not fitting in made him a persistent target of bullies, and he says he became suicidal. "I tried to defend myself, but that only made things worse, both physically and emotionally. It became a major strain. I never had peace. So I dropped out.”
The relationship between mental health and the dropout rate among area African-American students is one topic explored in the second of a series of briefs from a project called "For the Sake of All,” funded by a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health.
The initial brief showed how poverty and low levels of education affected health. The latest report focuses on how the health of youngsters affects the area’s dropout rate. The rate imposes a hidden cost on society, according to the brief’s author, William F. Tate, chair of the Department of Education at Washington University. As examples, he says 1,000 fewer African-American dropouts in the St. Louis area would:
• Increase the regional gross product by $15 million a year.
• Allow the diploma holders to spend up to $21 million more on homes.
• Add an extra $1.1 million in state and local tax revenue each year.
Such positive outcomes would require sustained public and private investments in counseling and mental health and other services for youths, the brief says.
Avery is an example of how even modest investments can make a differences in the lives of youngsters. He now has a high school diploma, but he's undecided at the moment on a path to more education, a job and doing his part to boost the region’s economy.
He says his fate began to change after he quit the Riverview district, moved in with a relative in St. Louis and became part of the city school system’s high school graduation initiative. There he found a lifeline of hope through the district’s dropout recruiter, Charlie E. Bean, who is counseling 350 kids who are at high risk of dropping out.
"Malik was suicidal a couple of times,” Bean recalls. "It was mentally and emotionally exhaustive for him because he was bullied. This is a mental health issue that lots of kids face. They aren’t strong enough to deal with that, along with the stress of family and the stress of grades. They give up because they are used to people giving up on them."
Bean estimates that he has reached roughly 3,000 students through the district’s initiative, connecting with wayward youngsters through social media and word of mouth.
"I give them what they have been dying for. I give them hope. When they have that, a lot of the negative things go away. They are able to move on with their lives. Malik was a kid in the corner, in a shell, when I met him. He has come out of that shell, partly because of the work done here.”
Tate’s brief also calls attention to other health and mental health initiatives that are making a difference in the lives of children in city and county schools. One challenge, he reports, is that many such programs nationwide are too uncoordinated to be as effective as they could be.
One example of a coordinated school program in St. Louis, he says, is the school-based health clinic at Roosevelt High School, set up through a grant from the Boeing Co. to Mercy Children's Hospital St. Louis and St. Louis Public Schools. Another more far-reaching program is the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, which provides mental health and substance abuse services for youths. Tate says the fund is committed to developing an integrated service system as an alternative to sending young people to emergency rooms to cope with mental health problems.
Like the first brief, this one is part of the work of a team of researchers from Washington University and Saint Louis University. The briefs will culminate with a report and a conference next year on the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Tate says the region can’t afford to ignore the challenge posed by high numbers of dropouts. He said more than 2,000 black students in the 9th through 12th grades in St. Louis and St. Louis County schools were listed as dropouts last year.
"Young people’s health influences their ability to learn and to complete school,” he says in the brief. “This is because health and education are closely related. This relationship is of particular concern of African Americans in the St. Louis region.”