Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

A ‘Neglected’ Population Gets Another Chance at a Diploma

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 31, 2013 10 min read
Dericka Ingram, 19, has studied for the past year at the Boston Re-Engagement Center. Ingram left her district high school after a series of moves and difficulty transferring credits. She found the Boston center online and has made up 16 credits.
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It’s too late to bar the schoolhouse door when 1.8 million students are already out.

Fueled by billions of dollars in government and foundation funding and adopted as a cause célèbre by no less than Bill Gates and Colin and Alma Powell, dropout prevention has been gaining momentum. But educators and researchers who work with at-risk students say there is no way to really achieve the Graduation Nation goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 without taking time to find, bring back, and keep the students who have already fallen through the cracks, at a rate of roughly 1 million every year.

“You could almost say all high school reform is a version of dropout prevention and student re-engagement, and that’s all well and good, but … we’re still hemorrhaging students away,” says Andrew O. Moore, a senior fellow at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, in Washington. “There are a lot of hopes attached to prevention strategies; dropout recovery has been a really neglected function.”

New data and technologies offer greater opportunity to find and reconnect out-of-school youths than ever before. Educators say emerging intervention models hold promise not just to build credits for an equivalent certificate, but to rebuild dropouts’ academic, social, and emotional foundations for success beyond high school.

A new analysis of high school completion from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center finds that the graduation rate for America’s public schools stands just shy of 75 percent for the class of 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. The graduation rate, which has risen nearly two full percentage points from the previous year and about eight points in the past decade, has reached its highest point since 1973. Yet the EPE Research Center finds 1.8 million young adults ages 16-21 are neither enrolled in school nor have completed a high school education.

“We know the field has matured enough that we have early warnings, risk calculators, longitudinal monitoring—all of which can tell districts shades of gray about which students fit a risk profile to drop out,” says BethAnn Berliner, a senior research associate and dropout researcher at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group. “We’ve also got the soft technology for getting those kids back, the social media, and immense door-to-door campaigns.

“But I don’t think there was a hunger to return dropouts before the economic downturn,” she says. “It was believed that there were still places in the economy that they could go. We know now that isn’t the case.”

Lost Potential

In generations past, out-of-school youths were able to substitute a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate for a standard diploma—if they needed one at all to get a good-paying job—but studies during the past 20 years have shown adults who got a GED without additional postsecondary credentials fare little better on the job market than outright dropouts.

Schooling and Work Among Young Adults

An analysis of 2011 American Community Survey data by the EPE Research Center places the size of the young adult population—those from 16 to 21 years of age—at about 27.1 million. Three-quarters of these youths are attending school, with similar shares enrolled at the K-12 and postsecondary levels. Nineteen percent of young adults are out of school and have completed high school; 6.5 percent have left school without a diploma or other credential. For out-of-school youths, a high school education is strongly tied to securing employment. Little more than one-third of noncompleters are working.


NOTE: Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2013

The long-term effects of not having a high school diploma—on a person’s career earnings, health, social situation, and likelihood of incarceration—are so disastrous that cost-benefit analyses find that for every $1,000 spent on dropout prevention, society reaps a return of $1,500 to $3,000. A 2011 study in Education Research International finds similar benefits from bringing dropouts back: Even after taking into account the students who drop out multiple times, dropout recovery returns three times the money invested in it.

That may change with the introduction next year of a new, more rigorous, and more expensive GED, but now educators are pushing hard to steer students to a traditional high school degree.

“I’d like to think [attention to dropouts] comes from a surge of academic conscience, but every student that drops out is a capital loss … and every one brought back is a reclaimed revenue source,” says Larry M. Perondi, the superintendent of the 20,300-student unified school district in Oceanside, Calif. “It’s real easy to not think about these kids,” Perondi says, “because they’re not the easiest population to work with, but there are so many of them, … and, man, there are some really bright kids who have dropped out of school.”

On the other side of the country, Dericka Ingram, 19, could have been one of those lost students. Organized, thoughtful, and conscientious, Ingram was named a “Star of the Month” in 2008 at Belmonte Middle School, in the Boston suburb of Saugus, for demonstrating “greatest assistance to others.”

Mapping Population Patterns for Recoverable Youths

An original analysis conducted by the EPE Research Center reveals state-to-state and regional differences in the percentage of youths who do not have a diploma (or an alternative credential) and are no longer in school. Nationally, according to the analysis of data from the 2011 American Community Survey, 6.5 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 21 lack a diploma and are not enrolled in school. Higher concentrations of such “recoverable” youths are found in the South, Southwest, and West. Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Montana, and Nevada have the highest percentages, at roughly 9 percent each.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2013

But the high school transition was rough, and her mobility proved to be a problem. When Ingram had to move in with her grandmother and transfer from Everett High School in Everett, Mass., to the South Boston Education Complex, the new school either never received or wouldn’t accept her previous credits, she says.

“I had to start from the beginning because they never sent over my classes,” she recalls. “I didn’t like it. At all. I was looking for a job as well, so I figured, since I don’t want to go to that school anyway, ... I just up and left.”

In many places, Ingram wouldn’t have had much choice after leaving school, particularly since she is overage. But the teenager was leaving school just as Boston was committing to giving her a way back.

One-Stop Approach

Boston is one of a network of cities, including Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore., that have established “re-engagement centers"—one-stop shops to help returning students find a new school or online classes; connect with social workers and therapists when needed; and plan for college and a career.

Texas' Statewide Strategy

Five years ago, concerns about Texas’ high dropout rate led to a statewide focus on recovering the students who had already left school. One program that emerged was an initiative to recover dropouts that was considered unique in the nation.

While most work on dropout recovery takes place at the local level, the Texas legislature enacted a law that allows the state to provide funds to school districts preparing students as old as 26 to receive their high school diplomas. The Texas Education Agency also began a dropout-recovery grant program that ran from 2008 to 2012 and offered support to districts, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education interested in bringing students back to school. The agency partnered with the Boston-based Jobs For the Future to train grantees and facilitate the sharing of best practices among them.

Each grantee created its own program, which could offer students pathways to a high school diploma or to demonstrating college readiness. The structure and results of programs across the state varied. Some were mainly online, while others involved door-to-door recruitment and in-class programs. In 2011, six of the programs were responsible for most of the recovered students—but the successful programs included both school districts and nonprofit organizations. Most programs offered financial incentives for students who met specific benchmarks and earned diplomas or certificates of college readiness. Overall, the results were striking: By 2012, the program had served more than four times as many students as it had anticipated.

But a tighter state education budget meant the program had no budget after 2012, and the last grant cycle ended in March. The TEA created a website with resources on dropout recovery, which it hopes districts will continue to use despite the funding drop-off.


  • Total number of projects funded: 42
  • Total active in 2012: 34
  • 26 school districts, 2 nonprofits, 3 community colleges, 3 charter schools
  • Total program cost: $20 million

Student Involvement

  • Students projected to be involved through 2012: 2,042
  • Students actually served through 2012: 9,823
  • Students who earned a diploma or demonstrated college readiness through 2012: 2,498

Student Attendance and Demographics

  • Last attended grade 9: 40%
  • Last attended grade 12: 25%
  • Economically disadvantaged: 75%
  • Limited-English-proficient: 23%
  • Special education: 12%

Statewide Dropout Rate

  • 2008-09: 9.4%
  • 2009-10: 7.3%
  • 2010-11: 6.8%

NOTE: The Texas Education Agency defines a dropout as a public school student enrolled in grades 7-12, who does not return to public school the following fall, is not expelled, and does not graduate, receive a GED certificate, continue school outside the public school system, begin college, or die.

—Jaclyn Zubrzycki

New models for dropout recovery—including re-engagement centers, charter school networks, and public-private partnerships—are blossoming nationwide. But so far, most are pockets of promise rather than a comprehensive public-policy strategy, says Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor and the director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“The new trend is to have programs designed to attract, enroll, and help these students finish,” he says. “There’s a new sector in the business of working with these really high-risk kids.”

In Chicago, where slightly more than 60 percent of students graduated from high school on time last year, a network of charter schools specializes in serving recovered dropouts or students who were struggling in their traditional schools. The 22 schools in the Youth Connection Charter School network are small, and each draws on community groups and local colleges and universities to provide an array of supports and services, including opportunities for students to earn college credits as they are making up their missing high school credits. But the alternative schools also demand a lot from students, who must complete senior portfolios and apply to secondary institutions to earn their diplomas.

In Boston, the center based its approach on the results of interviews with dropouts.

“At first, we kind of push academics to the back. We start at the human level,” says Manny Allen, a dropout specialist at the center. Allen, a former dropout turned college graduate, says he and other staff members use their own “educational struggles” to connect with students. “In our intake, students get to tell their stories,” Allen says. “A lot of them have never gotten to tell them in a nonjudgmental setting, and they are able to finally sort through that.”

The center, which opened in 2009, is in South Roxbury, down the street from a bus hub and a subway station, and adjacent to the district’s technical high school and evening campus. “We never want it to feel like the department of motor vehicles, where you take a number and wait,” says Kathy Hamilton of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit partnership between businesspeople, community groups, and the public schools that helped develop the Boston Re-Engagement Center. “We want students to feel welcome here.”

About a third of the center’s students are referred from teachers and guidance counselors, and another third are contacted during the center’s monthly sweeps of students who haven’t been seen in school recently. The rest come as Ingram did, through online research, signs, and word-of-mouth.

In the 2011-12 school year, the most recent for which there is data, the center brought back 501 of the 867 dropouts its staff members contacted. Most, 441, were referred to district schools, alternative campuses, and charters, but because of often-long waiting lists, the center has an online lab and credit-recovery courses available, too. Sixty students were referred to adult education or GED programs. Fifty-four students graduated by the end of the school year; 38 more were on track to graduate by August.

“The way we are, and the way we deal with young people, sends out the aura that, ‘You’re here, you’re an adult,' " says Gail Forbes-Harrison, the center’s director.

Ingram agrees. She made up 16 credits via the center’s online curriculum this year, working at home and in the center—and she’s scheduled to graduate this summer.

Who’s Accountable?

The increased attention to and innovation around dropout recovery also shines a harsh light on the paucity of research on how to re-engage these students, and intensifies the debate around quality standards and accountability for educators who work with them, says Patte Barth, the director of the Center for Public Education, at the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

Fewer than half the states credit districts in either federal or state accountability systems for graduating students on a five- or six-year time frame rather than the traditional four years, as allowed under 2008 federal graduation rate regulations. But it can make a big difference: The Washington-based nonprofit American Youth Policy Forum, which studies and advocates for fixes to the dropout problem, found that when Michigan included a six-year rate for incoming 9th graders in 2007, the graduation rate increased by 9 percentage points for students in poverty and more than 6 percentage points for black students.

See Also

Efforts to bring back students who have given up on a diploma vary from state to state. See a collection of these interventions: Dropout Recovery Takes Shape Nationwide.

And while state longitudinal-data systems have made tracking dropouts easier, states mostly haven’t changed the high-stakes, test-based accountability systems in which the school where a student last enrolled has responsibility for him or her. This sometimes leads to a game of hot potato with those who are perceived as unlikely to graduate on time.

Even “successful” dropout-recovery programs typically have a graduation rate of 55 percent to 75 percent, which, in comparison with other public schools, makes “a pretty solid program look like a failing school that should be shut down,” says Lili Allen, the director of Jobs For the Future, a Boston nonprofit that works to develop educational pathways for college and career readiness.

“We have this alternative system where we can push out these difficult students,” says UC-Santa Barbara’s Rumberger. “Theoretically, it’s supposed to be a better environment for them, but we don’t know if it is, and either way, the original school is off the hook. I think that’s a bad system.”

Rumberger argues for creating a value-added measure for graduation, in which “every school that touches that kid ... should be held accountable for the success or failure of that kid.”

Policymakers are starting to see some movement there, as well. Texas recently completed a pilot grant program that gave districts and community groups base funding to run interventions to bring back dropouts up to age 26, but then tied any additional funding to the number of students who eventually earned a diploma or GED, regardless of what models were used or how long it took.

Ultimately, Jobs For the Future’s Allen believes dropout recovery will be judged not on whether students get a high school diploma, but on whether they are really prepared for life after graduation: college, careers, family, and a productive civic life.

“There’s a growing recognition,” she says, “that this population needs to not just make it over that first finish line but really needs to make it through postsecondary if they are going to sustain family-supporting careers.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as A ‘Neglected’ Population Goes Back to School


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