Slashing Dropout Rate Key to Turnaround in Mass. District
Luring students back to school is central to district’s turnaround
Seven years ago, this struggling former mill town saw fewer than 40 percent of its high school seniors graduate within four years—putting it in some ignominious company as one of the worst districts for producing high school graduates.
Fast forward to 2014—three years after a state takeover and the launch of an intensive, hands-on effort to drive up high school completion—and Lawrence’s four-year graduation rate has climbed to 67 percent. Its dropout rate has been cut by more than half.
Slashing the dropout rate has been central to Lawrence’s efforts to turn around a school system that prior to 2011 was seeing too many students give up on their education.
Students like Jose Ramos, 17, who two years ago was missing some classes and failing others.
That is, until he met Leldamy Correa. The Lawrence school district’s “scholar re-engagement manager” understood his feelings of alienation among the 3,100 students at the Lawrence High School campus. She offered him another option at the High School Learning Center, a smaller, alternative campus for students ages 17-22 that the district revamped to serve students who are over-age and under-credited. He’s now on track to graduate this month, and to become the second person in his immediate family to earn a diploma.
“They give you the support—that’s what kids want—to get to the finish line,” said Mr. Ramos, who plans to attend trade school after graduation to learn HVAC installation and repair and who aspires to own a restaurant.
Ms. Correa—a former Lawrence High School dropout who later earned a GED certificate and graduated from college—hunts down students like Mr. Ramos on a daily basis, using Twitter, Facebook, a car equipped with a GPS system, and the district’s robust student-data tracking system. Once she identifies those at risk of leaving, or makes contact with those who’ve already dropped out, Ms. Correa has frank discussions about what their futures are likely to hold without a diploma: poverty, unemployment, and single parenting.
Then she helps each of them craft a clear, customized path to a diploma. Some need flexible schedules to accommodate jobs and family commitments. Others need intense tutoring and extra time to catch up on missing credits. All of them need educators who know their circumstances and communicate constantly to keep them on track.
The effort mirrors a growing trend in some of the nation’s districts to find, and reconnect, out-of-school youths, and it’s integral to Lawrence’s larger, evolving strategy to make high school graduation the norm, not the exception.
Superintendent Jeffrey C. Riley has said he will not be satisfied until Lawrence’s students graduate, enroll in college, gain employment, or join the military at the same rates as their suburban peers. Even with progress, Lawrence still ranks below most districts in the state for high school graduates. The four-year graduation rate in 2014 for Massachusetts was 86 percent.
When Shalimar Quiles, who is now Mr. Riley’s chief of staff, first started the district’s student-re-engagement effort in 2012, she found a list of about 250 students who were unaccounted for, a number that “shocked” her.
“And the worst part of it was that there was no data to tell me why this number was so high, where these students were, when they actually dropped off,” Ms. Quiles said. “I basically had to start from scratch.”
She grouped the students by age and the number of credits they had accrued, then created a rough draft of the possible routes to a diploma or job-training opportunities.
One of the most important strategies was the work to track down students and meet with them in their homes, Ms. Quiles said. That personal attention made a deep impression on families.
“In some cases no one had ever called them to say ‘What is the problem? Why are you not at school?’ ” Ms. Quiles said.
But convincing them to come back to school isn’t enough. Individualized attention and personal relationships are what help students stay the course, said Robert A. Cayer, the principal of Lawrence’s High School Learning Center.
In the case of Kinberly Guzman, 19, that meant an after-school job as a janitor at the school so she could attend classes and still provide some economic support to her family.
“Instead of focusing on what you’re doing bad,” said Ms. Guzman, who is expected to graduate later this month, “they focus on what you’re doing [well], and that kind of pushes people.”
Vol. 34, Issue 29, Page 19