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Study Urges Dropout-Prevention Efforts in Middle Grades

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Efforts to keep children from dropping out of school must begin in the middle grades, a new report advises, and should include school-based reforms that enhance achievement, promote self-esteem, and provide personalized, rather than punitive, discipline.

The report, prepared by the Massachusetts Advocacy Center and the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina, attempts to merge what its authors say have until now been two mutually exclusive areas of research: effective middle-school practice and dropout prevention.

"While current literature on school dropouts makes scant reference to specific needs of middle-grades students, current literature on middle-level education largely ignores the particular needs of the most vulnerable students in the intermediate grades," says the report, "Before It's Too Late: Dropout Prevention in the Middle Grades."

But it is in the middle grades that at-risk students begin to show multiple signs that they may eventually drop out, the report points out. Many are over-age for their grade, lag in basic skills, and have a poor attendance record.

"Rather than admit their inadequacies," the report says, "they misbehave."

The report quotes this dropout portrait by Dale Mann, professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University: "Most students quit because of the compounded impact of, for example, being poor, growing up in a broken home, having been held back in the 4th grade, and, finally, having slugged 'Mr. Fairlee,' the school's legendary vice-principal for enforcement."

Such practices as grade retention, tracking and ability grouping, a rigidly standardized curriculum, and disciplinary suspensions often encourage alienated students to leave4school, the report argues. And attendance policies, it adds, usually do little to address the reasons students may cut classes.

A dropout-prevention strategy in the middle grades must include, according to the report, "both academic and social support for vulnerable students, along with an assessment of school policies and practices that undermine a school's holding power for all its young adolescent students."

The report recommends a three- to five-year effort at the building level for addressing the dropout problem. Each middle school is8urged to establish a "school-improvement and dropout planning committee," composed of teachers, administrators, parents, students, and others in the community.

The report suggests that schools develop a pilot program to support at-risk students, initiate ongoing teacher training on the issue, and review school policies and practices.

It advocates structural reform to establish team-teaching units that would emphasize interdisciplinary instruction.

These reforms should have the following characteristics, the report says:

A "mainstream orientation" so that students are not stigmatized or pulled out into a separate, in-school setting.

An immediate, personalized, and non-punitive approach to absences and other disciplinary problems--one that attempts to "reconnect" students who have "disengaged" from school.

Attention to remediation of basic reading and mathematics skills.

Assurance that every student targeted for support services knows that at least one adult in the school cares about him or her.

The report was written by Anne Wheelock of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, who is the author of "The Way Out: Student Exclusion Practices in Boston Middle Schools," and Gayle Dorman, formerly of the Center for Early Adolescence and now program director for education of the Lilly Endowment.

Copies of the report are available for $9, prepaid, from the Center for Early Adolescence, Suite 223, Carr Mill Mall, Carrboro, N.C. 27510; or, the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 76 Summer St., Boston, Mass. 02110.--k.g.

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