In 1988, Ewing Marion Kauffman made a commitment to a group of high school students that if they would stay in school, stay off drugs, avoid teenage parenthood, commit to being good citizens and graduate on time, he would fund their post-secondary education. To be eligible for the program, parents also had to agree to be involved in their child's education by attending meetings and participating in parent/teacher organizations and other activities. Project Choice was offered to students at Mr. Kauffman's alma mater, Westport High School in Kansas City, Mo., and to selected students at five Kansas City, Kan., high schools.
A Community Effort
Project Choice partnered with schools, youth serving agencies, colleges and employers to ensure that Choice students were given the support they needed to be successful in the transition from post-high school and college to career. Study skills training, tutoring and counseling helped them graduate. Field trips, summer programs and computer training broadened their experiences. Assistance for college entrance exams and application qualification processes helped them get into colleges, community colleges and vocational-technical programs. Career counseling guided them to find suitable work.
Choice was driven by the principle that a high school dropout not only suffers a personal disadvantage, but also creates a disadvantage for society. Statistics show that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed and nearly four times as likely to be arrested. They are six times as likely to become a single parent and nearly eight times as likely to become dependent on welfare.
Project Choice led to the Foundation supporting Project Transition, a high school restructuring effort by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. F.L. Schlagle High School, a Kansas City, Kan., school, is part of a three-city national demonstration of urban high school restructuring for improved outcomes for educators and students.
Supporting the restructuring of schools was found to be the most effective way to foster good attendance, high graduation rates and attainable plans for higher education and employment.
The final group of Project Choice students graduated from high school in May 1996. During the students’ post-secondary education, Project Choice staff supported students through a combination of campus visits and telephone contact with students and parents to ensure successful completion of the students' post-secondary endeavors. Staff members were actively involved in showcasing these students to communities as they completed their educations and transitioned to work.
From 1988 to 1992, nearly 1,400 high school students signed up for Project Choice. The Foundation provided support to parents and helped to organize mentors, summer sessions and computer training to support the students’ successful high school completion. By 1996, 767 of those students had graduated from high school on time. Of those, 709 opted to continue their education; 308 students completed college or vocational training.
All of the students involved in Project Choice have now completed their post-secondary educations. The last group of students graduated from their post-secondary institutions during the summer of 2001. The program officially ended when those educational commitments were completed. Students who were involved with Project Choice are now fulfilling Mr. Kauffman's dream by through their employment in a variety of professions and vocations. Project Choice graduates have started a Project Choice Alumni Association with the goal of giving back to the community through volunteer service.
Each year, the Project Choice staff would introduce new graduates to the business community at an event hosted by the Kauffman Foundation. While there are no plans to fund new Project Choice classes, the program has inspired the creation of similar projects in other communities.
In June 1997, the Kauffman Foundation and Project Choice staff hosted a national conference where more than 100 organizations and school districts across the country that are operating or are trying to launch dropout prevention in their communities came to learn about Choice's successes and challenges.
Now that the program has officially ended, the Kauffman Foundation is in the process of fully documenting the results and producing a comprehensive book that will chronicle the experiences and lessons learned from this dropout prevention program.