April 21st, 2012

DISCUSS: How Do We Best Prevent Dropouts?

Dropping out of school is something that hundreds of kids decide to do every day. How do we prevent the problem from happening in the first place? We asked several experts — and one former HS dropout — to weigh in. Their answers are below; please feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments.

In This Discussion

Jennifer Zinth

It starts with re-engaging the students.
Adria Steinberg
Jobs For The Future

We need to establish a connection between school and jobs.
Diane Spencer
Park View Education Centre

“Traditional” support is a myth.
BethAnn Berliner

We should focus on empathy and remove blame.
Tori Walston
Community College Student

A first-hand account of dropping out of HS.
Eric Schwarz
Citizen Schools

It all begins in middle school.

Jennifer Dounay Zinth, ECS

It starts with re-engaging students

Jennifer Dounay Zinth, Senior Policy Analyst, co-directs the ECS Information Clearinghouse, which provides policy and research information and analysis to state education leaders and their staffs, the media and the general public. Zinth also leads ECS’ High School Policy Center, which provides state policy information, analysis and research on a number of high school reform issues, including dropout prevention.

Surveys of dropouts clearly tell us why young people are leaving school before high school graduation: Students are bored and disengaged. Students see no relationship between what they are expected to learn and their future goals. Particularly in large high schools, students say they feel no adult in the building cares about them. And teen pregnancy, or needing to support a young family (or parents and siblings), can lead students to put work and other priorities ahead of finishing school. Research also tells us that even before students themselves may realize they are on the path to dropping out, they give us clear signals, such as low reading proficiency in the early grades, poor grades in core academic courses, poor attendance and misbehavior.

To maximize their effectiveness, dropout prevention approaches need to eliminate the school-related reasons young people are giving us for dropping out, provide supports and incentives for those struggling with personal and economic challenges, and set in place mechanisms to identify students exhibiting warning signs.

To reduce boredom and disengagement, states might consider expanding opportunities for project-based and hands-on learning, and opportunities for high school students to earn credit for learning outside the traditional school day and year — acquired through internships and apprenticeships, independent study and community service, for example. Teacher preparation and professional development programs should ensure educators across the disciplines can draw connections between the curriculum and students’ post-secondary and career aspirations. Efforts, particularly in the secondary grades, to connect students with a caring adult — to phone home after a student’s first absence, for example, to recognize and reward good attendance, to place “graduation coaches” in schools to identify and address diverse student needs — have all demonstrated positive results.

States should also implement early warning data systems that promptly notify appropriate school staff when student grades, attendance or behavior create a red flag. Such systems should ensure that staff quickly act to provide appropriate interventions, and ramp up efforts if initial interventions do not demonstrate results.

Adria Steinberg, Jobs For The Future

A connection between post-secondary and jobs is crucial

Adria Steinberg is a vice president at Jobs for the Future. She leads JFF’s work to improve educational options and outcomes for struggling students and out-of-school youth.

Every year, another 1.2 million students drop out of high school. These students too often are concentrated in low-performing, high-poverty schools that fail to graduate them or prepare them for further education or careers.

A growing number of educational innovators are developing new, Back on Track Through College schools and programs that not only graduate off-track students and young people who have dropped out of school altogether, but help to put them on a pathway to post-secondary education. What these schools have taught us about how to reengage young people can be applied to improve all our schools.

It is important to combine the academic acceleration and delivery efficiencies of secondary-post-secondary partnerships — found in early college high schools and in college bridge programming — with the deep academic and social support, and youth development and leadership practices, found in the best alternative schools. Through post-secondary partnerships, schools can help students gain exposure to the demands of college and even earn some college credits while they still have support — powerful motivators to continue school.

To support academic success, we must offer students a more engaging learning experience in which substantial reading, writing, and inquiry take place daily across the curriculum, and students take advantage of next-generation digital learning tools. Coursework aligned to college readiness must be scaffolded through collaborative group work and other strategies that enable students of diverse skill levels to support one another.

In addition, we need to give young people better guidance into post-secondary programs that lead to high-wage, high-demand jobs in the regional labor market — so that they see transparent paths leading from school to high-quality employment. And, throughout, we must keep a closer watch on the warning signals of student disengagement, systemically monitoring failing grades, poor attendance, and other warning signs most closely linked with dropping out.

We can take what is working in the best of our dropout recovery programs and embed these strategies into mainstream schooling. The result would be a smoother transition from secondary to post-secondary, a more effective delivery of academic and social supports, a more intentional matching of students to the right post-secondary programs, and a far greater likelihood that students will succeed.

Diane Spencer, Park View Education Centre

There is no such thing as “traditional” support

Diane Spencer is the Student Support Advocate at Park View Education Centre in Nova Scotia.

At the turn of the 20th century, John Dewey argued that all children deserve an education that addresses their own individual needs, capabilities, and interests.

He also professed that not all children should receive the same education. Today, however, the public education system remains largely designed to accommodate the average to above-average academic student. The lack of student engagement in our current system is the result of a divide between what schools can offer and what is important for today’s students, which has led to less student motivation and a reduction in school connectedness. Students who struggle in school are those who do not fit the traditional academic mold. A system that is more tailored to the individual needs of students, focusing on making positive connections, and with flexible scheduling possibilities is the best way to retain the most students.

I work in a large, rural 10-12 high school in Nova Scotia as a Student Support Advocate (SSA). The SSA maintains a caseload of at-risk youth (considered at-risk for any number of reasons, with academic difficulty being only one). This position is necessary because there are often students who do not “fit the mold” for school, who miss time due to different circumstances, who need extra support to catch-up on assignments missed, or who need assistive technology due to a learning disability. Many of these students also need an advocate who can be a voice for them, and who will fight to ensure they receive the support they need. The position relies not only on experience, but also a thorough understanding of student motivation and school connectedness. The role of Student Support Advocate goes a long way in supporting more children in non-traditional ways, which in turn, keeps more youth in school.

BethAnn Berliner, WestEd

How about we start with empathy?

BethAnn Berliner is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd. Her work seeks better ways to close the achievement gap, increase graduation rates, and recover dropouts. She is the author of Grappling with the Gap: Toward a Research Agenda to Meet the Educational Needs of Children and Youth in Foster Care and Imagine the Possibilities: Sourcebook for Educators Committed to the Educational Success of Students Experiencing Homelessness.

Preventing students from dropping out starts with understanding their personal lives and education histories better; that is, knowing the whole kid. Right now, there are one million students currently homeless in the U.S. Another half million children and youth are in foster care. They don’t aspire to drop out of school, but life outside the classroom makes it particularly difficult to reach graduation.

At the same time, schools can provide homeless and foster youth with needed stability and protection from the potentially negative effects of domestic upheaval and uncertainty. Positive and successful school experiences play multiple, reinforcing roles by enhancing students’ well-being, forging enduring relationships with caring adults, fostering resilience, and increasing chances for self-sufficiency and fulfillment as adults.

While there are significant gaps in education research and limited evidence-based practices to help support these students, we do know schools can help to prevent dropout. They can use early warning systems to flag faltering students and monitor interventions to get them on track to graduate. They can reengage students with flexible school hours, self-paced credit recovery courses, and relevant curriculum tied to individualized graduation plans. And schools can be safe havens where students receive personal and academic supports needed to be successful learners and another chance to earn a diploma.

Just as much as formal research and practical improvements are still needed, we need to extend some basic empathy to these students. It’s easy to blame students for their behaviors that frustrate us — when they don’t submit homework or disrupt classrooms. But how can we blame a kid for not doing assignments when there is no place to do homework? Since dropping out is a process that starts long before students decide to not set foot back in a classroom, there are opportunities to stem the tide.

Tori Walston, Former Dropout

A first-hand account

Tori Walston is from Moss Bluff, La. She graduated from the Louisiana Youth ChalleNGe Program in 2011 with her GED. She currently resides in Arlington, Va. and is taking college courses at Northern Virginia Community College.

My name is Tori Walston and I am 17 years old. I decided to drop out of school at the age of 14. I dropped out because I lacked discipline, structure, and my priorities were out of focus. I slacked a lot in school and as a result I dreaded going. Eventually I fell too far behind and had to repeat a year. It wasn’t long into the second year that I just stopped going to school and dropped out completely.

I believe — and from experience I know — that most children drop out because they either come from broken families, they have parents that don’t pay close enough attention, or parents that pay too close attention. Some parents are too controlling and as a result the child often retaliates.

Dropping out can be prevented by adding more structure and discipline and eliminating the many distractions that get in the way of school. This has to be done both at school and at home.

After realizing that I did not have many options after dropping out, I found out about a residential ‘second chance’ program. I lived there for six months and it changed my life. I was able to concentrate on myself and school. It helped me to realize that education can give you a path to a better life and should be taken seriously. Among the things I learned there, time management has helped me the most during my transition into adulthood. I am now able to schedule things wisely and I am able to balance school and work.

I believe that parents should be provided the opportunity to attend classes on parenthood and should also be provided an advisor if/when they need advice. I am not a parent but I know that being a parent is a full-time job and it can get difficult at times. I believe that an advisor could give them the support and guidance they need to make the right decisions in order to raise a well-rounded young person who can contribute to society.

Eric Schwarz, Citizen Schools

It all begins in middle school

Eric Schwarz is CEO of Citizen Schools.

According to “Putting Middle Grade Students on the Graduation Path,” a research brief by Robert Balfanz based on more than a decade of research and development work, in high-poverty environments a student’s middle grades experience strongly impacts the odds of graduating from high school. The brief reports that sixth graders who failed math or English Language Arts, or attended school less than 80% of the time, or had behavior issues in school, had only a 10% to 20% chance of graduating from high school on time. Less than 1 out of every 4 students with at least one off-track indicator graduated within one extra year of on-time graduation.

These statistics are jaw-dropping, but they make sense and they indicate a clear path for increasing graduation rates. By intervening early and helping middle school students succeed, we can raise graduation rates significantly.

Children spend 80 percent of their waking hours out of school. Sixteen years ago, I founded Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit education organization, because I saw an opportunity to use those hours to get them excited about learning by connecting them with professionals in the community to explore new careers and learning experiences. We focused on middle school grades because it is especially important to give middle school students opportunities to explore the world around them, make connections between school and future success, and work on hands-on, engaging learning projects.

External studies have shown that Citizen Schools students have better attendance rates, higher grades and fewer behavior issues than their peers. Long-term, we’ve seen our students graduate from high school at significantly higher rates than their peers who did not participate in Citizen Schools. Efforts to provide middle school students with more relevant learning opportunities and more caring adults who can support their learning and growth are smart investments that will pay off in the long run.

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By giving them something to make them stay…authentic and engaged learning experiences. All that takes guts and joyful attitudes to pull off. The status quo no longer works…kids see through the rhetoric, lifeless curriculum and hostile approaches to controlling them which leads to an uprisal that is hard to reverse. Offer options that are meaningful and kids will flock to them.

I know there are many students dropping out of high school but there are so many more that are succeeding. I attended a high school awards ceremony last night in a town that is not affluent. There had to be at least eighty students there receiving awards, sometimes numerous awards. over $750,000 was given out to those students. This includes scholarships to the state universities that are renewable for four years. It was a pleasure to see students succeeding as I do very often in my job. I think some incentive needs to be put in place for those not succeeding. The idea of giving credit for outside interests or their passions that may develop into a career is a good one. Peer mentoring is another successful model. Talk is good but action is better!

Six years ago I did several reports on “vulnerable teens” for different Regional Employment Boards. I discovered one district (out of about 20) had historically flunked 25% of its 9th grade, supposedly because they “weren’t ready” for high school. In fact, it later came out they used this tactic to maximize the system’s “gain score” from 8th to 10th grade state exam, so the Principal could brag that his district had the highest gains in the state.

When, as the researcher, I pointed out he was “cheating the system” he retired. As did the Guidance Director who enforced his model. As did the Superintendent.

The next cycle chose to recognize the “early indicators” identified by 30 years of research in the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and dramatically cut grade retention from 25% to 5% within two years. In the course of that change, the new Superintendent asked my opinion of their tactics. “It costs $15,000 per year to send a child through any of your schools, and they just reduced that number by 80. They saved the system over $1 million. How much of that savings will the School Committee invest in more innovations to produce more and better education?”

Dropout numbers are one metric, but grade retention is easier to solve, with much, much higher return on investment, including higher state and federal reimbursements for graduate numbers.

I agree with all the writers here and so we all know that there cannot be just one reason for dropping out!Periodic surveys and orrective steps based on results are a must.

Every human society socializes their children to be productive members of that society. The children have no say in how they will be taught to fit into the culture they were born into. In the 21St century it is our society’s responsibility to educate our children to be productive members of a very complex advanced industrial society. Our children should not be allowed to drop out of school because they are “bored” or don’t like the teacher or the work is too hard. Mandatory attendance laws should be strictly enforced. Parents must be held responsible for making sure their children not only attend school but work hard in school no matter what they want!

I dropped out of Shorewood High School in Western Washington illegally when I was a teenager, threw away my formal education for ever, and I will never regret it! It wasn’t because I was doing drugs, because I got pregnant, because the teachers were mean, because I couldn’t do the work or because of any of the other irrelevant things people assume must have motivated me to drop out. I dropped out because I was morally disgusted by what that school stood for. I didn’t want to associate with students who groped each other in the hallway, stole school property, made sexual jokes about their teachers in class and endlessly tried to humiliate their friends. I didn’t want to be told that I was a special snowflake and that I should love myself no matter what, and I was afraid that if I stayed there for too long, I’d start to believe it. I wanted nothing to do with the other students or their behavior, but the staff thought there was something wrong if I didn’t have any friends, and they kept trying to pressure me to befriend the other students against my will. They couldn’t respect that I legitimately preferred not to have any friends, and that I was better off not having any friends. They did everything they could to include students of every race and culture, but they never asked me if I WANTED to be included with other races or cultures. I didn’t want my race and culture being watered down and diluted by other races or cultures, AND I STILL DON’T! On top of it all, they never gave me a chance to form my own opinions about the world, to decide what I wanted to learn. They weren’t educating me. They were merely preventing me from educating myself. I taught myself far more after dropping out of high school than I ever could have learned had I stayed. No one will dare acknowledge my reasons for dropping out, because the world hates everything I care about: honor, self-discipline, humility, self-sacrifice, loyalty to one’s sexual partner, and loyalty to one’s own race. Everyone thinks graduating from high school is a wondrous privilege, but the truth is if they had forced a diploma upon me despite all my efforts to escape it, I would have torn it to shreds and pissed all over it for what it stood for. The one thing I regret is never having a chance to do that!

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