Reclaiming Dropouts

Improved Solutions for Urban Systems (ISUS)

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An academic and vocational charter school in Dayton, Ohio

Problem Statement

Of the 4.5 million children in the eighth grade today, 1.5 million will drop out before graduating from high school. Another million will graduate, but with skills sufficient only for minimum wage jobs. In 2008, the number of eighth graders will double. If the current trend continues, the number of dropouts will also double.

Schools in some districts are literally hemorrhaging students,” according to Gary Orfield, director of The Civil Rights Project. Half of all Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans entering high school do not graduate four years later. For minority males, the dropout rate is even greater. The consequences for these students and their communities are devastating.

The conventional high school diploma path is based on the attainment of 21 to 23 Carnegie units, which requires the obligatory “seat time.” A young person attempting to continue or return to school at 18 years of age would find that he is no longer welcome in traditional schools where he might be at grade level with 13 or 14 year olds. In addition to too few Carnegie units, dropouts typically have other barriers to attaining a high school diploma, such as poor academic skills, erratic attendance, behavioral problems, pregnancy and child care needs, and court involvement.

The secondary credential option for dropouts is the General Education Diploma (GED). However, only 2 percent of those with GEDs earn a four-year college degree, compared with 36 percent for high school graduates. Employment differences are also significant. In a study of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, only 48.2 percent of Black GED holders were employed, compared to 62.7 percent of Black high school graduates.

The inadequacy of the GED is magnified by workforce trends. Forty years ago, 65 percent of jobs in the U.S. were filled by unskilled laborers and 15 percent by skilled laborers. A complete reversal is now projected, with 65 percent of jobs requiring skilled labor and only 15 percent unskilled; 20 percent continue to be filled by professionals. Coupled with the need to offer returning dropouts the more acceptable high school diploma is the need for training and preparation to enter the 21st century job market. One of the most protracted problems employers face is the lack of new skilled workers. According to a recent report from the Center for Workforce Success, more than 76 million baby boomers will retire over the next 20 years, but only 46 million Generation Xers will take their places.

While high percentages of dropouts are under-employed and unemployed, there is still an undetermined number not in the labor force and therefore are not even counted. Many of these young people end up in the penal system. When a juvenile is incarcerated for a felony, 7 in 10 recommit a crime within three years. The national average cost of juvenile incarceration in 2004 was $43,000, per year, with costs as high as $64,000. The cost in Massachusetts was $47,000 per year.1 These figures only represent per diem expenditures and do not include additional expenses like medical needs, substance abuse treatment, counseling, and parole. Just one youth who drops out can potentially cost a community $243,000 to $388,000 over the dropout’s lifetime and between $1.7 and $2.3 million when lifetime criminal justice, substance abuse, and welfare dependency are included.2 A 2001 study conducted by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice found that 82 percent of adult prison inmates were high school dropouts. The scale of the problem is so vast and the cost to our economy is so high that drastic changes are urgently needed.

However, “federal investment in second-chance programs has dropped from $15 billion in the late 1970s, at a time when school completion was peaking, to $3 billion today.”3 The preparation of out-of-school youth to enter the workforce in response to workforce opportunities yields a high return on investment. The average cost to educate a young person at a unique Dayton, Ohio educational initiative called Improved Solutions for Urban Systems, or ISUS for short, is $16,000—a modest investment considering the immense benefits generated for the student and the community. The return is evident from both the perspective of filling employers’ needs and from the perspective that without workforce preparation these young people face dire prospects. Innovative approaches like those being developed by ISUS are sorely needed but hard to find.

The Solution: ISUS

ISUS targets 16- to 22-year-old low-income youth who are out of the education mainstream—young people who are characterized as “over-aged, under-achieving, non-attending, court-involved, disciplinary problem, dropout” youth.4 The odds are that these youth will have great difficulty creating successful lives for themselves. These young people are helped to become transcenders—people who rise above the odds.

Since troubled young people tend to fare poorly in large schools, ISUS creates small school environments clustered around a career interest, each with its own faculty. Looking for partners willing to commit resources, the program initiators chose the construction field as the first training opportunity to offer. There were complaints of an aging workforce (the average worker was 52) and companies were unable to bid on business due to a dearth of trained entry-level workers. In addition, the plan that emerged might build support for the very young people that the county was building two new detention centers to otherwise house. The students, as part of their training, would rebuild blighted inner city neighborhoods.

The Ohio Department of Education accepted a proposal from ISUS to create a charter school in which dropout and near-dropout youth would earn high school diplomas using a competency-based approach to replace Carnegie units. Each ISUS student would progress at her own pace. ISUS would measure academic attainment. Students would have to pass all five State of Ohio proficiency exams, as do conventional high school graduates. The single most important concession made by the Department of Education was allowing ISUS to create a program for the returning high school dropout to receive a high school diploma plus, instead of a GED. The “plus” means industry-certification, college credits, real work experience, and a lifechanging perspective, all while completing high school.

Currently, ISUS offers four career tracks: residential construction (since 1992), computer technology (since 2001), and more recently manufacturing technology and health care. ISUS students alternate between academic, technical, and actual hands-on work. In all four careers, students complete community service hours in areas related to their chosen vocation. Health care students volunteer at partner hospitals, construction students build homes for lower-income families, computer students refurbish computers that are then gifted to inner city children, and manufacturing students build wall panels for the new home construction. ISUS currently has an enrollment of 381 students for the 2004-05 school year.

In addition, completion of the ISUS curricula leads to industryrecognized credentials. For example, the construction program uses a curriculum designed at the University of Florida’s National Center for Construction Education and Research in cooperation with trade associations. Students are placed on a national registry and starting salaries are determined in an apprenticeship mode. Health care students progress through a continuum of courses that lead to nurse assistant and licensed practical nurse certifications. Relevant coursework is accepted by Kettering College of Medical Arts toward completion of its registered nurse program.

The five most important measures of success are (1) students’ annual academic improvement, (2) creation of a sense of hope instead of hopelessness, (3) attainment of marketable skills, (4) progress in improving targeted neighborhoods, and (5) placement in jobs or higher education. Since ISUS recruits young people who are below grade level, the usual measure of pass-or-fail Ohio proficiency exams is supplemented by tests that measure academic growth. From 2003 to 2004 the number of students passing proficiency exams increased by 20 percent. From one year to the next, math and science scores improved an average of 13 and 12 points, respectively.

Students alternate quarterly to take academic and technical coursework or actual hands-on practice. The ISUS organization and ISUS students implement a concerted strategy to win the respect and support of the community by making important contributions toward its success. The same students who were categorized as over-aged, under-achieving, non-attending, court-involved, disciplinary problem dropout young people become an asset instead of an imposition. “Before I came to ISUS, I hadn’t gone to school for years,” said one current student. “ISUS gave me a second chance and all the teachers were really supportive of me. I am graduating in June 2005 with a high school diploma, training for employment, and a job waiting for me with a local construction company. I couldn’t have gotten here without ISUS.”

During 2003, construction students built five homes, a near replica of the Wright Brothers homestead, and a gazebo park. In 2004, students built eight homes and a children’s playground. ISUS students are credited with having sparked the rebuilding of two Dayton, Ohio neighborhoods. Property values increased from $47,000 to $95,000 from the first to the twelfth home constructed in the first neighborhood, the Rubicon district. In the second neighborhood, Wolf Creek, where students are constructing the 27th of 60 homes, property appraisals rose from $79,000 for the first home, constructed in 2001, to $130,000 for the most recent home. In 2002, a home built by ISUS students was chosen by Professional Builders Magazine, the National Homebuilders Association, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Gold Excellence Award. The students placed ahead of two colleges.

Students in the computer technology program have refurbished over 100 computers since 2001. These computers are donated to low-income area residents and students who would not otherwise have access to a computer. Families receiving computers are given training from the computer technology students on how to use the computer and access the internet.

The project employs an aggressive outreach and recruitment process with strategically placed billboards and radio advertisements and highly visible construction accomplishments that receive media attention and result in a flood of inquiries.

ISUS attracts eligible participants who are unlikely to be aware of the program because of race, ethnicity, sex, or disability. The student population is approximately 60 percent African American, 40 percent Caucasian (mostly of Appalachian heritage), and 33 percent female. Montgomery County Juvenile Court, the St. Vincent DePaul Center (a homeless shelter), The Job Center (Dayton’s One-Stop Center for employment services), Sinclair Community College Fast Forward, Latino social service agencies, and area churches refer special populations and other out-of-school youth to the program.

The selection process includes intake, application, orientation, and enrollment phases. ISUS provides an in-depth orientation for prospective students and their parents/ guardians where participants receive information relating to mutual expectations for students, parents/guardians, and the school. The nature of each career-training track is explored with an overview of the challenges students will face and opportunities afforded.

Potential for Replication

The ISUS program is indeed replicable. In the five years since ISUS negotiated its innovative charter school contract with the Ohio Department of Education, six other schools in Ohio are using the competency-based approach to allow dropouts to re-enter the mainstream educational system.

ISUS is identifying resources for the creation of a blueprint. This can be extremely useful to an organization wanting to go this route. The ISUS program receives frequent parties from cities like Bangkok, Thailand and Nairobi, Kenya and the African country of Malawi. Rotary support and the resulting publicity contribute to the international exposure. During October 2004, the superintendent of Lansing, Michigan schools and the president of Lansing Community College organized a visit to ISUS for 60 community representatives in an attempt to replicate the ISUS program design in Lansing.

The Youth Division of the Department of Labor has adopted “serving the neediest youth” as a priority. ISUS is one of two highlighted programs. This exposure has created a surge of inquiries. In addition, the Ohio Board of Education allotted ISUS five charters to replicate the project in other Ohio cities, but recently approved a change of venue to create a campus for all five schools in Dayton. The plan for the campus is to include a conference center specifically for training those wanting to replicate part or all of the ISUS approach.

Most recently, in November and December 2004, ISUS founder Ann Higdon was invited by the U.S. Department of Labor to present the project at regional forums in Chicago and Phoenix. In attendance were government officials from the Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services in addition to Labor.


The dropout crisis can be addressed and remedied if society is demonstrates the public and political will to confront the full extent of the problem. The school reform agenda has to be broadened to include not only improving the quality of schools and raising the level of student achievement, but also school completion and dropout recovery—a goal that ISUS has demonstrated is achievable.

  1. Department of Justice, 2004
  2. Cohen, D.L., Joining Forces: An Alliance of Sectors Envisioned to Aid the Most Troubled Young, 1998
  3. Educational Testing Services, One Third of A Nation, 2004
  4. Quote from ISUS founder Ann Higdon, 2001
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