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Weigh-in: What's Your Approach to Dropout Prevention?

Administrators share strategies for lowering the dropout rate.

By Lucinda Blumenfeld | February 2009

"We need to show up at the student’s door,"

says Dr. Abelardo Saavedra, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. "That’s the concept behind Reach Out to Dropouts, a key element of our initiative Expectation: GRADUATION. Reach Out to Dropouts was developed to track down students who failed to return to school after the summer. We have now expanded the program to include kids who dropped out during the previous school year. Within a month of being contacted through the program, roughly 700 of our students returned.

"The Reach Out program includes what we call the Walk, in which teachers, staff, community members, board of ed members, and elected officials, including our mayor, knock on the doors of dropouts. The Walk has assisted in bringing more than 3,000 students back into our schools; 320 of them actually reenrolled on the day of the Walk itself. Many of our volunteers have mentored the very students they assisted in returning to school, and many others have gained a new understanding of the real-world complexities that cause kids to drop out. In the past five years, the Walk has grown from 8 schools with 500 volunteers and 620 home visits, to 24 schools with 1,400 volunteers and just short of 2,000 home visits. It really has become an event that connects the district, the city, and the community around this important issue. It’s really time to start thinking outside the box with the intervention, prevention, and recovery of dropouts."

"Too often students drop out because they can’t read,"

says Frances Wills, superintendent of Briarcliff Manor (NY) School District. "Without reading skills, these students are unable to keep up with the high school curriculum, are embarrassed by their failings, and experience a lack of hope that drives them to withdraw. There are reading methods that target high school students, but often the high school schedule does not adapt to the needs of these students, and rarely do high schools employ trained reading teachers for students beyond the ninth grade. This is where RTI (Response to Intervention) becomes essential. The model gives us a way to intervene to ensure that all students are able to read at the appropriate grade level.

"Research also indicates that a student's clear vision of the future is critical to his or her success in school. Many students who drop out lack the support and advocacy of their parents to achieve academic success; these students become confused about their own aspirations. We must do everything we can in school to build confidence and a sense of efficacy based on real accomplishment. In this case, the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) model is very helpful. It provides a framework for schoolwide cultural changes that offer support for all students.

"Lastly, students need to find an adult in school who cares. If a student finds one teacher or staff member to connect with, this human connection will ultimately keep him or her involved in the school community. Students want to feel a sense of belonging, of being part of something. If the school fails to provide that, the student will seek that human connection elsewhere."

"Put teachers and students on the same side of learning,"

says Tommy Floyd, superintendent of Madison County (KY) Schools. "As students move from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school, it is their positive relationships with teachers that will help them make the most of good instruction, curriculum, and assessment. We conduct a series of spring transition meetings in which elementary teachers meet with the middle-school staff, and middle-school teachers meet with the receiving freshman academy teachers to discuss academic, anecdotal, and methodological data. These meetings increase the staff's awareness of the practices that have worked in the previous schools. We want to promote the belief that the results of today's lesson should influence tomorrow's plans.

"It is also crucial to communicate to district stakeholders how each school is progressing formatively. Throughout our district, we conduct walk-throughs where principals in the same feeder pattern share the responsibility of monitoring instruction and using handheld computers to post their observations. That way elementary, middle, and high school administrators are exposed to the expectations and pedagogy of each level. Through these efforts, we seek to intervene with struggling students, because if left alone, they will grow frustrated and silently disconnect."

"It's a process of disengagement that starts back in elementary school,"

says Debra Duardo, director of Dropout Prevention and Recovery for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "But we see most kids drop out at the age of 15. Maybe they have to work, or they're dealing with early pregnancy, gang violence, or substance abuse.

"Our Dropout Prevention and Recovery unit works with students most at risk. We assign a Diploma Project Advisor to students identified as highly at risk of dropping out. These advisors assess the students to determine why they are not having success in school and provide them with resources, such as help finding appropriate employment or arranging for substance abuse counseling or child care.

"There's also the issue of the accuracy of data. We have situations in our district in which students are counted as dropouts when, in fact, they are not. Any time a student does not return, we make every effort to find out why the student is no longer attending. On many occasions, a pupil services and attendance counselor visits the student's home to find out what's going on. The counselor may discover that the student just had a baby or is attending an alternative educational program. Whatever the reason—working full-time, incarceration, moved out of the city—it's assigned a code that we must enter into our Student Information System (SIS). Some of the reasons cause the student to count as a dropout. Others, such as attending community college, will not. Because we have such a high turnover in clerical staff, often these codes are not entered into the sis and students are erroneously counted as dropouts. We must improve how we capture data to create a more accurate picture of the problem."

"The goal is to catch students early,"

says Craig Witherspoon, superintendent of Edgecombe (NC) County Public Schools. "We must prevent students from getting behind in the educational process. One way we do this is by revisiting our school improvement plans on a quarterly basis, not just at the end of the year. During our quarterly reviews, staff monitors various data points, including attendance, suspension, and academic measures, to more quickly implement improvement strategies.

"We are also establishing suspension intervention programs for our secondary students. In these programs, students suspended for more than three days may attend an outside program to receive instruction and counseling during their suspension time. The school sends work, and if that work is completed on time, the days are not lost.

"Most recently, our board of education approved a 21-credit graduation program for struggling students who either previously dropped out or encountered other issues that severely impacted their ability to meet the 28-credit local requirement. A committee will evaluate the student's situation and determine an appropriate course of study. Students would still meet the state graduation requirements in this program.

"Additionally, we embarked on a community-wide effort to communicate with parents, students, and the community at large about the importance of students getting a high school diploma from an economic and social standpoint. In this global economy, gone are the days when a high number of dropouts in low-skilled jobs can sustain a rural community. Dropouts have an economic impact on their own personal earning potential and that of the local economy.

"We must move from a one-size-fits-all model to match the diverse needs of our students and provide them with opportunities. A high school diploma only gets students to the starting line of life; we cannot have them dropping out before the race even begins."

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