A task force of state lawmakers and education leaders has recently formed to stop the high dropout rate among Illinois students.

Last week, task force members held a Back-to-School Summit downtown at the The Union League Club to launch the statewide effort to curb dropouts and re-enroll students into school.

“There are a lot of students that are out of school, but are on waiting lists to re-enroll – we need more funding for small schools to allow these students to get back in school,” said task force member Jack Wuest of the Alternative School Network. “The task force wants to push for more funding towards smaller schools and after school programs. It certainly can be done.”

The ‘Task Force on Re-enrolling Students Who Dropped Out of School’ began last spring in the Illinois General Assembly.

The 21-member group includes CPS CEO Arne Duncan, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th), state Senate President Emil Jones (14th) and 8th District state Rep. Calvin Giles. Other legislative members include state Sen. Carol Ronen (7th) and state Rep. Monique Davis (27th).

According to the Chicago Board of Education, more than 210,000 youth between the ages 16 and 24 were out of school in 2000, and can be classified as dropouts, according to 2000 Census data.

The state allotted an estimated $18 million for programs to attract students, including $24 million to fund after-school programs throughout the state.

However, since many students who have dropped out are not counted into the city’s totals, the numbers statewide could be even more daunting. In the past several years, the state has reached out to educators to launch additional programs to encourage students who have dropped out to return to the classroom.

Among these: the Truant Alternative and Optional Education Program and the Optional Education Program.

The fruits of these efforts show signs of ripening, however, as last year, the dropout rate for Illinois students showed the greatest one-year improvement since 1994.

Nevertheless, task force members such as task force Chairman Jesse Ruiz, who’s also chair of the Illinois State Board of Education, say the goal of the task force is to improve on the work that’s been done.

“In Illinois, we need to build on what we’ve accomplished in the last few years for students who have dropped out,” said Ruiz, adding that through funding of after school programs and small schools, many students have re-entered high school in accredited course work after dropping out months prior.

“Our challenge is clear,” said Ruiz, “we need a comprehensive plan to re-enroll out of school students so they can reach their full potential and build successful futures.”

Recently, Senate President Jones told the Associated Press that the state’s plan for education should “include funding for re-enrolling out of school students as well as accelerating the performance of students who are already in school.

“Too many students in our state who are eager to re-enroll in school and graduate from high school do not have access to the kind of program they need.”

These thoughts are echoed and elaborated upon by Wuest who adds, “the task force wants to assure that there are enough programs for all the students that we must serve. There are too many on the streets with nothing to do, and will only end up working in jobs where they will not make nearly enough as they would had they graduated.”

However, the work of the task force does not end at just the expansion of programs for teens and young adults, say members; it also includes surveying outcomes to gage both their progress on re-enrolling Illinois students and assuring that students who are re-enrolled proceed to their mortarboard ceremony.

“We will certainly be looking at graduation rates as our work continues,” said Wuest. “We want to assure that the execution of our short-term goals lead to long-term success.”

In the next three months, the task force will hold five public hearings around the state on addressing the issue of re-enrolling students. The next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9 in Forest Park. The task force will also publish an interim report on its findings early in 2007 that will include recommendations to the governor and General Assembly. A final report will be produced by January 2008.