Family problems, absences and poor grades can drive students to becoming a dropout. But what actually drives many teenagers to quit school, say experts, is a sense that nobody in the building cares about them—and it’s a belief that is often reinforced after they leave.
“When schools don’t follow up with students who leave, it reaffirms the idea that no one cares,” says Jody Manning of the PACER Center, which advocates for youth with disabilities.
District leaders who have raised graduation rates have designated staff to reach out to dropouts. Districts closely monitor data, such as repeat absences and falling grades, that signal students may leave school.
They also offer courses with real-world relevance and visit homes to connect with parents. Most important, they take these preventative measures well before senior year. “If every student knew they had caring adults in the school environment, it would make a difference,” Manning says.
Problem-solving for a potential dropout
Dropout prevention specialists at Yuma Union High School District in Arizona monitor attendance, and an information system automatically contacts parents when students don’t show up. Students who do drop out get visits from school officials.
“We just want to make sure they’re enrolled somewhere, and they have the records and transcripts they need to get credit if they transfer to another district,” Associate Superintendent Tim Brienza says. “Even if they drop out, we want them to know, ‘We’re not done with you.’”
The Yuma district (11,225 students) now has a dropout rate of 1.5 percent, down from 2.7 percent in the 2016-17 school year.
One key to lowering the district’s dropout rate is individualized intervention, Brienza says. For instance, a Yuma senior, on track to graduate, began missing class because of her new job.
“The student wasn’t coming to school because her mom was getting married, and she started working a night shift to save up for a wedding gift,” Brienza says. So school officials came up with a solution: They hired her as a front desk receptionist earning the same pay. This allowed her to work without jeopardizing her education.
A similar approach has also kept students in class in The School District of Lee County (93,000 students) in Florida. Last year, Graduation Coordinator Shellie Taylor intervened when a 12th-grader withdrew from school weeks before graduation.
The student planned to complete her credits in the district’s adult education program, but months passed and she hadn’t. Enter Taylor, who arranged for the student to complete her degree online.
By February 2019, the student had earned the credits that she needed to graduate. “Although a student may not graduate by their fourth year of high school, allowing them to complete their requirements the fifth year is life-changing,” Taylor says.
The School District of Lee County created Taylor’s position in 2017 to combat the dropout problem. The district also has an early warning system with more than 40 different criteria—such as grades, behavioral problems and attendance—to identify at-risk students.
These efforts led Lee County to a graduation rate of nearly 83 percent, its highest ever and a 5 percent increase over the 2016-17 school year, says Wanda Creel, the district’s chief academic officer.
Graduation rates improved for African-Americans, English language learners and students with disabilities, all groups vulnerable to dropping out, Creel says.
Creel says parent outreach has helped. The district organizes community gatherings in different neighborhoods to meet parents where they are, instead of requiring parents to come to school.
Ninth-grade turning point
Research on high school graduation rates also suggests that early intervention matters.
Elementary school students who participated in the Boston-based City Connects program—in which teachers, counselors and social workers monitored the children’s personal and academic needs—weren’t as likely to quit high school as others, according to an American Educational Research Association study.
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“It’s comprehensive,” says Stacey Raczek, associate director of evaluation and research for the program that started in Boston Public Schools 20 years ago. “The intervention is designed so that each and every student gets a tailored approach.”
The staff members examine grades, test scores and attendance to spot students who are falling behind. “Somebody in the school, usually the school counselor, finds out what’s behind the scenes,” says Mary Walsh, executive director of City Connects and the Daniel Kearns Professor of Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
Getting vulnerable children the right intervention at the right time can make all the difference between students giving up on school and students deciding to stick it out, Walsh says. The first year of high school also influences graduation rates. Scholars at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that ninth-graders who fail more than one class per semester are highly likely to drop out.
The consortium developed the Freshman OnTrack indicator to help schools monitor performance and absenteeism. When students struggle, teachers offer tutoring or homework help, or call home.
Initially adopted by Chicago Public Schools in 2007, the indicator is now used nationally. The Corvallis School District in Oregon (6,850 students) employed the tool to boost its graduation rate to 89 percent. The rate has inched up from the 2016-17 school year, when its two high schools, Crescent Valley and Corvallis, had rates of 86 percent and 87 percent.
“Our high schools have implemented data teams that review students’ grades throughout the semester,” says Corvallis Superintendent Ryan Noss. The teams take action when a student doesn’t earn three credits by the end of their first semester of ninth grade.
The schools maintain contact with students and parents, and differentiate intervention plans. If a course such as English needs to be repeated, the student can enroll in the district’s language arts summer school taught by a language arts teacher, Noss says.
Related story: Why teacher home visits help dropout prevention
If students who’ve fallen behind don’t go to summer school, the district encourages them to make up their missing credits the following semester. A student also has the option of taking an online class or working with a tutor, according to Noss.
“We maintain an ongoing conversation about grades with our students, and support them as they take the ownership to reach out to their teachers,” Noss says. “This keeps the student in control of their learning and graduation plan.”
Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, says passing freshman year is imperative. “Most students will fall further and further behind unless someone figures out what’s going on and reaches out to them,” she says.
CTE classes matter
Giving students access to career and technical education classes makes a difference, too. From 2013 to 2018, the graduation rate of DeKalb County School District (102,000 students) in Georgia rose from 60 to 75 percent.
Vasanne Tinsley, the district’s deputy superintendent, says career planning has motivated students. As early as elementary school, students examine which professions interest them. In high school, students land internships, get career certifications, and earn college credits in Georgia’s dual-enrollment program.
Across Oregon, schools are also boosting their career offerings. The Corvallis School District expanded classes in computer science, automotive instruction, forestry and STEM after voters passed a ballot measure in 2016.
Corvallis students who took multiple CTE classes last year had a graduation rate of 94 percent, compared to 87 percent for those who took none, Noss says.
“Kids attend school for a variety of reasons,” Noss says. “I believe that authentic real-world learning provides purpose and meaning for many students.”
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based reporter who has written about education for several national publications.
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