By DAVID SORTINO
For the past decade, the U.S. high school dropout rate in our inner cities has remained constant at between 40 percent and 50 percent of high school students.
Whatever the reasons, the problem of high school dropouts may not be that complicated and might easily be solved — or maybe the numbers can be cut in half — by looking at a few intangibles. Here’s one. Could we possibly connect the dropout rate to the degree to which we address the vocational interests of juveniles?
For years, I have worked with high school dropouts who end up in juvenile correctional institutions. Many students who drop out of school often break the law, their only graduation becoming a trip to juvenile hall.
A study conducted by the Washington State Office of Corrections found that 70 percent of prison inmates do time in juvenile correctional facilities. Another study by UC Santa Barbara found that juvenile crime costs the state about $1.1 billion a year, but the economic loss from juvenile crimes is about $8.9 billion per year.
When I asked juvenile offenders to name some reasons why they dropped out of school, they often used words such as “boring,” “not interested” or “I needed to make money and get a job” and so forth. However, if we investigate their responses, we might begin to shed light on a possible solution to the dropout rate as well as to juvenile crime.
For example, I have used vocational assessments to motivate higher learning and career awareness with juvenile offenders and school dropouts. Over a five-year period, 75 percent of male juvenile offenders chose vocational interests associated with a realistic and conventional personality. The realistic and conventional vocational personalities represent those males interested and even motivated to learn or work in the trade industry such as auto mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, landscape design, etc.
Conversely, 70 percent of female juvenile offenders chose a vocational personality, which is associated with the social and artistic personality. This is defined as being highly social and creative with interests in careers connected with hairdressing, dental hygiene, preschool education, jewelry design and so forth.
In many respects, perhaps the solution has now become the problem. That is, we refuse to recognize the connection that dropouts and/or juvenile offenders might need a different school curriculum or one that complements their personality or interests with learning. In short, when you connect an at-risk population with high vocational interests you are in effect defining a major cause of the high dropout rate and delinquency of students.
We need to take the advice of Joseph Pearce, author of “Magical Child,” and stimulate the ability to learn through connection to the heart. We need to offer curriculum that, as Pearce notes, “serves as a catalyst to greater brain activity or emotional intelligence.”
The moral of the story? The cost to build Sonoma County’s juvenile hall facility (Los Guilicos) was about $38 million. The cost to build a new technical high school would probably be more. However, the average cost to incarcerate a high school dropout turned juvenile offender in California for one year can vary from $125,000 to $175,000. The cost to educate a California high school student for one year is about $9,000. Which do you think makes more sense?
David Sortino, a Graton resident, is a psychologist and retired teacher. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him through his blog “Awakening Every Child’s Genius” on pressdemocrat.com.