Two years ago a young man named Vic Fenner attended our Baltimore Talent Development High School (BTDHS), an innovation school opened in 2004 through a partnership between Johns Hopkins University and Baltimore City Public Schools. Vic came to BTDHS as a 9th grader with myriad problems. Like many students entering BTDHS, he was performing below grade level in reading and math. He also was alcoholic, homeless, and largely on his own with little positive adult support in his life. But the adults at BTDHS wrapped their arms around Vic, and by the middle of his sophomore year he was engaged in school, making honor roll, and pulling his life together. In February 2007, hearts broke when Vic became Baltimore’s 46th homicide victim, gunned down by a young man who had dropped out of high school.
Vic Fenner’s story is dramatic and wrenching. So much so, it is tempting to simply sublimate the tragedy into art—write another script for The Wire and move on. Vic’s life and the way it ended calls on us to pause, however, and hear two important messages for education policymakers committed to ending the nation’s dropout crisis.
The first message is that it is possible to create schools that are organized and resourced enough to meet the academic and social needs of students who have multiple risk factors for failure. In our network of Talent Development Schools, and in others across the country, middle and high schools are breaking the mold and beating the odds. After nearly two decades of applied research, development, and practice, there is growing understanding of the kinds of reforms necessary to create high-performing learning environments that promote success for all students. Federal demonstrations and substantial investments by private sector foundations have produced pockets of success, many lessons learned, and a reform movement poised to reach more young people.
The second message of Vic’s story, and the lesser-known story of the young man who killed him, is that short-term investment in transforming a few secondary schools is not enough. Getting and keeping all young people engaged in learning and on track to graduate from high school ready for college and the 21st century workplace is going to require wider, deeper, and more systemic change. Recent policy focus on raising standards for high school graduation and aligning high school curriculum to college entrance requirements have been important first steps to establishing high expectations and engaging students through challenging, meaningful work. We must now turn our sights to other systemic priorities so that students at risk of failure and dropping out can be provided the right supports at the right time so none fall through the cracks. Perhaps, with enough skill and effort, we can reasonably aspire to close those cracks altogether.
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This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of the State Education Standard, the journal of the National Association of State Boards of Education.