Rhode Island is “leaving behind a remarkably high proportion of the population,” Beacon Hill Institute Senior Economist Jonathan Haughton told the audience at a February 28 conference hosted by the RI Public Expenditures Council. “But those who make it through high school get on to college and do rather nicely.”
The slide projected onto the wall behind him drew the “dualistic” picture with national rankings: Rhode Island is fifth in higher education enrollments and fourth in physicians per capita, but forty-seventh in unemployment and forty-first in high school graduation. According to 2010 data from the state Department of Education, 21.5% of students had not graduated five years after they began high school, and it doesn’t require a professional researcher to discover that they are drawn heavily from urban populations and disadvantaged families.
Over the past decade, addressing the problems of the American education system has become the subject of national political debates and high-profile documentaries. During that same period, the Star Kids Program, based in Middletown, RI, has quietly gone about building a 100% graduation rate for the disadvantaged children of parents dealing with drug addiction and incarceration.
Star Kids works with private schools, charitable organizations, and individual sponsors to offer students guaranteed financial and community support from the time they enroll through their college application process. “We’ll never displace any child,” says Executive Director Kathleen Burke. The result has been that not a single one of the 148 students who have begun with the program and stayed within its geographical area has dropped out. That includes 12 who have graduated, all going on college (one trade school), with the most prestigious being Notre Dame and Georgetown.
The program began in 2000, when Dr. Timothy Flanigan — notable even among Rhode Island’s large population of physicians as head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Miriam Hospital, Rhode Island Hospital, and Brown University — applied his experience cofounding Providence’s Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education (RISE) program to the East Bay, from Newport to New Bedford. Often at the suggestion of social workers, families approach Star Kids, and the organization assists them through the process of choosing and applying to private, mostly religious schools.
A little under one-third of the program’s funding comes in the form of direct aid and tuition reduction from the schools. Star Kids covers the remaining expenses through a mix of grants, donations, fundraisers, and individual sponsorships that match donors to specific students. Beyond tuition, the money supports tutoring, uniforms, and extracurricular activities.
In the plainest terms, what Star Kids offers to parents and other legal guardians is a choice of schools and a way out of a detrimental environment. In that regard, it can be seen as part of a larger trend, a movement, in education. According to Stephen Nardelli, Executive Director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, the latest round of lotteries for the state’s 15 public charter schools, held last week, sifted through 6,521 applications to fill 697 openings. “It’s clear that there is a demand for public school choice,” he says.
The families with whom she works through the Star Kids program, says Burke, “know that it’s an opportunity that they’re not going mess up for their children.” Parents “own the process,” so they are more responsive and more involved. While charters and other variations of school choice might benefit from that dynamic, too, Burke says that her program also strives to create a sense of community and dedication. Even when families determine that public schools would be preferable, because they’ve moved to more-attractive districts or because their circumstances have changed, Star Kids continues to offer support for tutoring and other expenses, as well as moral support.
As far as she and her predecessor are aware, in a group consisting of nearly 75% girls, Star Kids has only had to address one teen pregnancy. That means that ninth-grade-and-older girls in a program exclusively for children with high-risk backgrounds (and fewer than one in seven in a two-parent household) are only as likely to become pregnant as the total population of girls living in Newport, according to statistics compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count.
However, fostering family involvement and focusing students are only parts of the equation. If the experience that Star Kids has had with schools and sponsors is any indication, cultivating enthusiasm for offering a choice may engage society as much as having one motivates students. It’s a matter of perspective.
“The real root is one child,” says Burke. “If you can make one child’s life better, if you can break into one generation of a family that’s been ’round and ’round with issues, then that’s going to help the educational system as a whole.”