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How three districts are solving education's biggest problem.

The dropout problem is poor, minority, and urban. It's rural, undereducated, and below the poverty line. It's that high school kid in the back row who is homeless and reads at a sixth-grade level, the one whose parents have lost their jobs, or the one who is pregnant or chronically truant.

But it's also collective: Economically struggling states with overwhelmed schools are letting a third or more of their students slip away.

If you think you know about the dropout problem, consider this:  Seventeen states create 70 percent of the nation's dropouts. Except for a few northern cities, the problem is primarily below the Mason-Dixon line and in California, according to the 2009 Graduating America study by Johns Hopkins University and Jobs for the Future, a Boston education consultancy. A poor economy often worsens the dropout crisis, which, in turn, worsens the economy. It's a downward spiral.

Confronted with students who are habitual truants or years behind their peers, teachers and school systems often lose hope and put their efforts elsewhere. But the dropout problem doesn't have to be irreversible. Urban districts such as Montgomery County, Maryland ("College Prep Starts in PreK," Scholastic Administrator, Back to School 2010), demonstrate that nearly all students can become college- and career-ready, if teachers believe they can and if teachers and students are given extra resources.

States can help. New Hampshire cut its dropout rate by raising the legal age for dropping out to 18. And Texas is making progress by committing money and amending many regulations, like reimbursing districts for students up to age 26.

We found other success stories. In the midst of Chicago's huge dropout problem, its Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) is a lifeline for lost students. Half of them make it. In Texas, three poor cities on the Mexican border chopped the number of dropouts from 500 to 100 through imagination, energy, and community involvement.

And in South Carolina, a state where many parents lack a high school degree, a poor, rural district outdid itself in achievement with few resources except a goal, determination, and hard work.

The nation must help its at-risk and dropout students or it's never going to raise overall achievement, says Sheila Venson, executive director of YCCS.
"All the rest of ed reform is just noise, wasted effort," she says.

1. Chicago
Citywide program finds success by focusing on skills, not credits.

Most alternative schools have to go out and recruit dropouts and convince them to get a high school diploma. Not Chicago's Youth Connection Charter School. It has a waiting list.

Youth Connection Charter has about 4,000 seats in its 23 neighborhood alternative schools, each serving about 150 children. It has about 2,000 prospective students, who wait roughly 10 months for a spot. YCCS is an academic life preserver for many students who, for reasons ranging from academic failure to homelessness to drug abuse, are in danger of becoming some of Chicago's 45,000 dropouts.

"We've taken a solution-driven, skills-based approach in figuring out how to meet the challenges of these students," says Sheila Venson, who has been YCCS's executive director since its founding 14 years ago. "Our goal is not only to graduate these students but also to graduate them with high achievement."

To date, YCCS has enrolled about 20,000 dropout or at-risk students. Despite many academic barriers, about half of them have graduated, 1,200 alone in 2010. About 75 percent of YCCS graduates have gotten jobs or pursued further education, Venson says.

YCCS is among the nation's first organized citywide school systems specifically targeting the dropout population. Formerly run by academic or service organizations, the alternative schools were bought by Chicago and are operated by their original institutions under city oversight, giving each school a unique personality and service offering.

What differentiates YCCS from other alternative schools is its focus on skill mastery rather than course credits, which may be the reason it is outperforming some comparable schools in other large cities. According to Venson, YCCS students gained more than two years in English and math skills in the 2009-10, school year, and outperformed most of the "feeder schools" its students previously attended. All at a funding level of $7,500 per student annually.

Like other alternative schools, YCCS offers small class sizes, personal attention, and a welcoming atmosphere to discourage truancy. At West Side Youth Connection Academy, for example, a team of three teachers mentor each senior daily, says Principal Daisy Lopez. They form personal bonds with the students while also keeping them on track.

Despite successes, Venson has a number of things on her wish list: a bigger enrollment cap from the city and an extension of the age limit beyond 21; individualized education plans for every student; and the conversion of each school to skills-based grading versus course credits. But assimilating changes within a network of affiliated schools takes time, she admits.

YCCS is "a really important part of the city's ability to serve these kids," says Jennifer Vidis, Chicago's acting chief area officer for alternative schools. The network of schools has done "a lot of great work in bringing coherence to formerly autonomous schools."

While YCCS's public-private partnership is unique, Venson says other urban districts might be able to replicate its solutions for attendance and skill-based learning. Jobs for the Future has already brought in officials from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Mobile, Alabama.

2. Darlington County
Rewards, penalties, and hard work drive gains in South Carolina.

Lamar High School's basketball team lost its bid for the state championship last spring after five starters with low grades (including a 6'6" senior) skipped their tutoring sessions and weren't allowed to play.

Principal Kathy Gainey made the tough call. "They didn't think I would follow through. But you have to say what you mean and mean what you say. It's not always easy, and it's not always popular. Games are great but education is more important."

A 2009 graduation study identified South Carolina as a "crisis" state requiring federal intervention to overcome widespread numbers of low-graduation-rate high schools (less than 66 percent). But you'd never know that in Darlington County, whose poor, rural schools average an 85 percent graduation rate, especially Lamar High, whose 95.5 percent rate is Darlington County's second highest.

Lamar exemplifies Darlington's success, combining "tough love" (a missed chance for a state basketball title) with individual student and family support that is rare at the high school level.

"I'm their biggest advocate," Gainey says. "At each schedule change, I'm in the courtyard and can meet with a student and a teacher and work things out."
The small, 325-student high school has boosted its graduation rate from 65 percent to 95 percent in 14 years by partnering with families, encouraging students to think beyond graduation, adopting the more student-friendly Janet Allen reading curriculum, and adding creative rewards. For example, 10th graders who pass the state exam go to the front of the line on fried chicken days.

In addition to Gainey, the driver behind Lamar High's success is Darlington County superintendent Rainey Knight, who decided about five years ago that the countywide graduation rate of 70 percent wasn't good enough. Knight launched a multiyear, building-by-building, subject-by-subject review of the high-poverty, 10,500-student district.

Over time, the superintendent implemented many changes, including the adoption of a more comprehensive and engaging K-12 reading curriculum, one-to-one intervention for struggling students, ninth-grade academies, more flexible scheduling, and self-directed learning at the high school level.

Knight's advice to her peers: Look at a lot of data. Be honest about teacher performance. Keep a lid on truancy. Go get students and drive them to school if that's what it takes.

"We're making sure that school is engaging and motivating, so students want to learn," Knight says.
Darlington County's gains have been remarkable, increasing from a 70 percent to an 85 percent graduation rate in four or five years. The district's success was so great, in fact, that it was one of two school districts recently cited by a state oversight board as "over-performers." A recent scorecard ranked Darlington County a "surprising" 12th out of 86 districts overall and fifth highest in graduation rates, says Jo Anne Anderson, executive director of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee.

 "Sunoco [which has a facility in the county] is investing money in our schools, not because of its poverty but because of its achievement," says Anderson. "But the magic is very hard work."

Even more remarkable is that Darlington County's success occurred in South Carolina, which receives targeted federal aid to overcome graduation barriers, according to Graduating America. The number of dropouts is a crisis but the state is beginning to address it-earlier this year, it required all high schools to have at-risk programs, says Jay Ragley, the state's deputy superintendent.

"The solution is better teachers and principals, not federal grants," adds Ragley, who praised Gainey for benching Lamar's basketball players. "That's a huge deal."

3. Pharr-San Juan-Alamo
Home visits and college credits helped lure Texas dropouts back.

Fueled by breakfast tacos and coffee, nearly 600 community volunteers in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD fanned out in September 2010 to visit the homes of missing students and cajole them into returning to school.

Each volunteer in the district's Countdown to Zero initiative had five or six names and made as many visits as necessary to get the dropouts re-enrolled before the September 30 deadline for calculating per-pupil state funding.

The brainchild of then-new superintendent Daniel King in 2007, the annual campaign is just one of the out-of-the-box innovations he initiated to address the huge dropout problem that saw nearly 500 of the district's 31,000 students leaving school the previous year.

"This district was spinning its wheels, going backwards. There was a sense of inevitability and failure," King recalls. "The dropout rate was nearly double the state average."
King, who started a Dropout Task Force several months before he became superintendent in July 2007, hoped the Countdown to Zero campaign would cut the dropout rate in half. It did.

In August, he came up with an even more innovative idea: a partnership with nearby South Texas College for an alternative school that would offer dropouts not just a high school diploma but a toehold in college. And he wanted it to start the following month. It did.

The College, Career and Technology Academy opened in September with 200 dropouts up to 21 years old who lacked only three or fewer credits and/or a passing grade on a state exam to graduate. The state later broadened eligibility to students up to 26 years old who were six credits or fewer short of graduating.

What sets CCTA apart from other dropout recovery programs is its focus on the future. Instead of just offering remedial education, it offers students courses that earn both high school and college credit and a campus experience that gives them a taste of college life. Students meet in a former Walmart for small classes of remedial instruction and are bused to the campus for college and transition classes when they are ready.

In four years, the CCTA alone has awarded 769 high school diplomas and encouraged many students like Julio Viramontes, a dropout with a wife and three children, to go back to school. After failing the state math test four times, Viramontes left school in 2000 and scraped by with multiple dead-end jobs.

Eight years later, CCTA gave Viramontes a second chance-now he's earned his two-year degree and is headed for a four-year college program in criminal justice this fall. "I feel happy and confident now," Viramontes says. "My kids know their daddy is doing good. And I graduated [from junior college] the same day my son graduated from kindergarten, which makes it very special."

Among the reasons CCTA has succeeded is because it targets the specific needs of dropouts close to graduation, which vary significantly from those who have much more ground to make up, King says. The district has additional alternative schools for other at-risk students, including one for expectant and young mothers.

The district has taken several steps to encourage high school students:

  •  offer college courses for high school credit (1,600 students enrolled last year)
  •  provide the extra support of transition teams to assist at-risk groups like ninth graders, ELL students, struggling seniors, and older juniors
  •  put forth the Be On Time initiative to keep freshmen on track to graduation
Results have been impressive: Dropouts have plummeted from 500 to less than 100 and the graduation rate has risen from 62 percent to 78 percent in four years, King says. The number of graduates has climbed from 966 in 2007 to 1,774 in 2010 and may top 1,900 in 2011, he adds. Some of the credit goes to the legislature, which created a dropout recovery grant program and has made several changes to its student funding formula that have encouraged innovative solutions to the dropout problem.

Plus, the district's Countdown to Zero program wouldn't be possible without many community volunteers knocking on the doors of missing students.

Alfredo Mata, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Pharr and an annual Countdown volunteer, says community organizations knew the district had a dropout problem that was affecting quality of life.

"We welcomed the schools' call for help and their willingness to listen," Mata says. "It was a cool project and it really did work."

A year ago, the district won a $2 million state grant to replicate its college readiness plan within the state. And Boston-based Jobs for the Future profiled the district in a case study and is using Pharr-San Juan-Alamo as a model for other schools. In addition, four or five nearby Texas districts have adopted similar partnerships with South Texas College, a trend that could be scaled statewide, King says.

"We focused on moving forward and making education easily accessible," the superintendent adds. "And we've taken all these grants and opportunities, combined them in a comprehensive way, and achieved dramatic results."

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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