Pomp and Circumstance

Graduation photo

High school dropout rates plummet as districts find ways to get students to the finish line

Del Stover

High school wasn’t working for Trista Flodder. “I was immature. I didn’t like teachers telling me to get off my phone or complaining because I was 30 seconds late for class. I didn’t like the bells every period. I had six different teachers. Some cared; some didn’t. It just didn’t work for me. I was constantly skipping school.”

Given her attitude, it’s not surprising Trista was soon failing classes and putting her dreams of college at risk. But then she heard of the On Track Academy, one of a number of educational alternatives offered by the Spokane, Washington, school system to help academically struggling students to find a different—and ultimately successful—path to graduation. She signed on.

It made the difference. Today, more than a year into the program, the 17-year-old is on track to graduate. As part of her new program, she’s even taking courses at a nearby community college. It wasn’t that Trista didn’t want to complete school. She simply needed a different setting, with a smaller learning environment, more attention from teachers, a more flexible schedule, and more practically oriented lessons.

Without this personalized approach to her learning needs, she says, “I would have struggled to finish school.” Trista’s story is one of thousands across the nation where school leaders have supported interventions to help would-be dropouts earn their diplomas. It’s been a collective effort that’s boosted the U.S. graduation rate to 81 percent, the highest in history. In human terms, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has noted, over the past decade “nearly 2 million additional young people have high school diplomas, giving them a chance at a more promising future.”

This is one of the big success stories in public education today. Yet the achievement offers school leaders no respite. There’s too much work still to do. This year, as many as 750,000 students will drop out of school. The consequences to their future—in terms of lower wages, joblessness, the risk of incarceration, the obstacles to an economically secure future—are tragic. They will hit hardest in poor urban and rural communities and disproportionately affect minority students and those in special education.

Take a Varied Approach

Everyone understands the stakes. In Spokane, officials have been working to raise their district’s graduation rate for years. It’s now at 83 percent, up 18 percentage points since 2009. For years, several educators have been assigned to pushing these numbers even higher, says Fred Schrumpf, the district’s director of community engagement for graduation improvement.

“You need someone to lead the work—that’s part of it,” he says in talking about his district’s commitment to the task. “It takes designated people who wake up every morning thinking: ‘How are we going to do this?’”

It also takes getting a “good handle” on the challenges facing academically struggling students. When Spokane officials started analyzing their dropout numbers, Schrumpf says, they found some students weren’t far behind academically and a small intervention could make a big difference.

But the challenges facing other students were more complicated. Some were more than a grade level behind their peers. Also, as is common in urban settings, poor health, drug addiction, mental illness, and violence in the home—all of the traditional social ills related to poverty—were creating an assortment of problems that interfered with students’ educational pursuits.

While no surprise to educators, these issues must be taken into account in any strategy to boost the graduation rate. Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California-Los Angeles, suggests a thorough analysis of student needs as an early step in planning. What school leaders find may not agree with their assumptions.

For example, he says, they may be surprised by the number of students, particularly among immigrants, who are dropping out to work to support their families. “You've got to be more thoughtful in how you approach and understand what's wrong for students and address that.”

More than likely, school leaders will end up with a multistrategy intervention, one that the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network says should include programs that “appear to be independent but actually work well together and frequently overlap.”

That’s the model Spokane put in place -- an array of support systems that includes alternative schools, credit-recovery programs, tutoring and counseling services, and a dual-credit program with a community college for students who need inspiration rather than remediation to be re-engaged in their studies. The district also has worked to connect students and their families to community health and social services that provide supports that allow students to focus again on learning.

Early Warning System

Putting the right programs in place is critical, but officials in Davenport, Iowa, realized something else: Their programs were more effective when students get help before they start failing. That’s why Davenport Community Schools established an early warning system that provides a weekly assessment of students who are showing signs of trouble, says Superintendent Arthur Tate.

Low grades, spotty attendance, a school suspension -- these are just some of the red flags that tip off principals and counselors when a student needs attention.

The district matches its interventions with an unwillingness to give up on a student, Tate says. No one is classified a dropout until he says so. “We make it a lot harder to drop out,” he says. “If someone wants a GED, we won't let you take it unless you have permission to drop out. And I'm the only one to sign that.”

Tracking Problems

While timely data can help educators target those in need, a look at graduation rates by National Public Radio (NPR) has revealed another side to the issue of tracking potential dropouts. NPR reported that some schools appear to be mislabeling the status of students, reporting they transferred out of the district or to an alternative and GED program rather than dropping out. Not always clear, however, is whether the faulty records were a deliberate attempt to artificially lower a school’s dropout rate or simply an instance of slopping record keeping.

The mistakes still are disturbing, reported Becky Vevea of WBEZ radio in Chicago earlier this year. “In a lot of cases, it's not just a mistake or two. One school listed 120 students from the Class of 2013 as having left to be home-schooled.”

In Spokane, student records also proved problematic when first examined, Schrumpf says. But cleaning up the records actually helped lower the district’s official dropout rate, as hundreds of students were found to be still working on their education elsewhere or participating in alternative programs.

The effort still proved helpful in another way: Researching the fate of these students helped the district understand where it was falling short. “If students leave because we need a programmatic approach, we need to know that.”

Credit Recovery and Alternative Schools

As school leaders put more attention on boosting their graduation numbers, they’re also discovering other challenges that need addressing. For example, attention is being focused on what’s now a common instructional intervention: credit-recovery programs.

While summer school has not disappeared as a tool, many schools are relying increasingly on commercial online courses to allow failing students, rather than retake an entire class, to review sections of a course where their grades are not adequate. Today, nearly 90 percent of districts use some form of credit recovery, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

Given the pressure to boost graduation rates—and the unwillingness of some students to retake a year-long course—a credit-recovery program really makes sense, school leaders say. When Davenport school leaders crafted their strategy to get failing students on track, “we began to realize that, until we were able to meet students where they were ... to solve their problems, we weren’t going to have any success,” Tate says. “You couldn't throw these students back in a large classroom … you couldn’t bring them back without a credit recovery program.”

Yet school boards need to realize the quality of some of these programs are in question, says Sonja Santelises, vice president for K-12 policy and practice with The Education Trust. Some online programs involve “little more than kids progressing through electronic worksheets” with minimal teacher interaction and a weak curriculum. Such programs, she says, are a disservice to the students who are looking for an education that prepares them for college and career.

It’s important, therefore, for school boards to ask the tough questions to ensure that credit-recovery efforts are rigorous enough, she says. Are the course lessons aligned with the curriculum? How much learning time is set aside for lessons versus worksheets? How much interaction is there with teachers? What vetting process was used to review the programs—and is there an ongoing evaluation of the academic gains that students are experiencing?

“A credit recovery program should be about enrichment and acceleration,” Santelises says. “It should not be about a watered-down curriculum or remediation … that's exacerbating and masking student academic problems that already exist.” To ensure the quality of instruction, many school districts combine this online coursework with teacher-led instruction. A common venue is the numerous alternative schools that have opened to remove struggling students from the big-box comprehensive high schools where they are floundering.

In Davenport, the district invested heavily in creating Mid City High School, which offers smaller classes, a flexible schedule, and child care services. Teachers are selected for their ability to relate to students and teach in a less-formal environment, Tate says. “We have a great faculty that understands the mission. It makes a big difference.”

Hundreds of these schools have popped up across the nation. Some target specific students, such as teenage parents, while others offer additional counseling and access to vocational education and more real-world experiences that engage students who otherwise would give up on school. Others have flexible hours so that students can work to help their families financially.

Serious Priority

Ultimately, the quality of such programs depends on the determination of school leaders to hold themselves accountable for student success, educators say. And, while this may be a universally shared ideal, not all districts appear equally committed to the task. If that were the case, then Alabama’s Perry County Public Schools would not have a graduation rate nearly 30 percentage points higher than a nearby school district with similar demographics.

Why is Perry County more successful in pushing students to a diploma? Superintendent John Heard suggests the reason is as simple as making the graduation rate a serious priority -- and ensuring that everyone in the district knows what the expectations are.

Years ago, school leaders created a committee of teachers, parents, students, and community members to analyze what it would take to guide all students to graduation. This effort did more than just provide data: “It made very clear to everyone that the old expectations would not be acceptable anymore,” says Heard.

The district has backed up its expectations with the resources to make a difference. School officials created an early warning system to identify students in trouble and reached out to community agencies to create a safety net of services to help students with health and home issues that interfere with learning.

Another important initiative was to put money in after-school tutoring and intervention programs, an investment that was a clear sign of the district’s commitment, he says. After-school activities require a schedule of late buses -- and transportation costs are particularly onerous for a rural school system. “It stops a lot of systems in rural areas from doing things.”

Preparation and Prevention

Other school districts are targeting particular populations that are at greater risk of stumbling academically. Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools closely examines the academic progress of students in ninth grade, which research shows is a particularly vulnerable time for students to start failing high school.

The Spokane schools are looking harder at whether middle school students are adequately prepared for high school, and it is redirecting additional resources to such traditionally vulnerable populations as English language learners. Newcomer schools are an increasingly common strategy to target the needs of new immigrants, and some districts are investing more in assisting those in special education.

One of the least expensive -- yet most effective -- strategies to boost the graduation rate is obvious but not easy: Don’t let students fall behind academically in the first place. A number of school districts are consciously looking to early childhood education, for example, as an investment in future high school diplomas.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia School District is putting resources into early literacy. When asked about dropout prevention programs, school officials pointed to the district’s Reading by Four program, which is a response to one of the greatest indicators of a future dropout—whether a child can read at grade level while still in elementary school.

“When we talk about college and career readiness and preparing our kids for higher-level expectations, one of our goals is early literacy and reading,” says Chris Shaffer, deputy chief of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “You can become hyperfocused on a reactive solution, and it’s important to really think about the opportunities we are providing our students as they matriculate throughout the system.”

The bottom line is there are a multitude of strategies to help school boards raise their district’s graduation rate. But if they want to ensure that these strategies are successful, they should look constantly at the numbers—and confirm the district is moving in the right direction, says Christopher Mazzeo, a director at Education Northwest, a regional education research group in Portland, Oregon.

“Look at the academic growth of your students,” he says. “Look at whether students in these programs are graduating on time—or at all. Look at the climate in your schools … whether students are graduating ready for college.” And, most important, he says, is to “understand the students you serve.”

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is senior editor of American School Board Journal.

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