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Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Best Programs Empower Students

Best Programs Empower Students

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Not every school has to compete with the world's plushest hotel-casinos for the attention of its students. But many of the nation's top dropout-prevention programs share the overall philosophy of Las Vegas High School's school-to-work initiative.

Successful programs follow a well-tested model, a leading expert on dropouts says: They put students in an environment where they feel comfortable and can succeed academically, or socially, after they may have known mostly failure before.

"They're earning something. It may be points toward graduation, or money," says Terry Cash, the assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, a research and information-sharing network at Clemson University in South Carolina. "It provides them with a sense of movement," he says, "and a sense of empowerment over their own destiny."

Earlier this year, a study by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative agency, pointed to Las Vegas High School's Partnership at Las Vegas program as an innovative way of keeping students in school. Congressional researchers visited 25 programs in six states, and wound up identifying three successful approaches for dropout prevention:

  • Supplemental services, which provide additional counseling, tutoring, or other help for students who may be at risk of dropping out;
  • Alternative learning environments, such as Las Vegas High's Partnership at Las Vegas program, that put selected groups of students in settings outside the main student population; and
  • Schoolwide restructuring, in which administrators change the overall organization or curriculum of a school.

A variation on the alternative-learning approach is under way at Bryan Station High School in Lexington, Ky. Known as Project Transition, it offers daily counseling and support for 150 students, helping them cope with everything from classroom difficulties to quarrels at home. Students are chosen by counselors and social workers at nearby middle schools, who try to identify pupils who might be at risk of dropping out.

The Bryan Station High project also arranges career training for students, allowing them to shadow employees at businesses. Now in its 11th year, the project appears to be working: Attendance among its students is up, along with academic performance, while suspensions have dropped, supporters say.

"When these kids graduate, it's like watching your own kid," says Becky LaVey, who until this year worked as a social worker in Project Transition. "You can have model programs and duplicate it, but you have to have the right people working with them, who will bond with the kids and take an interest in them."

Sean Cavanagh

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 46

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