Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Dropouts Now Face a Steeper Climb to Earn a Diploma Post-Pandemic

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 29, 2022 7 min read
Teacher Dawn Mathis works with student Rylee Humphries, 16, during an after school program at Mountain Education Charter High School in Woodstock, Ga. The Mountain Education Charter High School system has a program that pairs struggling students with adults who have faced similar challenges.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than two years of academic and emotional disruptions during the pandemic have significantly increased both the number of students who dropped out of high school and the intensity of support needed to get them back on track.

Across the country, more districts are opening or expanding dropout-recovery programs—via district alternative schools, charters and contracted services—the educators in these programs say they must provide more hands-on care than before the pandemic for students disenchanted with online remote learning.

“Pre-pandemic, if a school district had a dropout-prevention program, or they had an alternative school in their system, once they set students up, they just kind of left them there,” said Raymond McNulty, the president of the National Dropout Prevention Center and a former Vermont education commissioner.

“What we’re seeing now is schools taking a deeper look at their alternative schools, a deeper look at online services that they provide,” he said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of growth in schools recognizing the needs of our kids were greater than the academics and [recognizing] a lot of the issues around kids managing their own behaviors and the stresses and trauma of growing up in the world today.”

Acceleration Academies, a network of 14 dropout-recovery centers serving more than 2,800 students nationwide, has seen a dramatic uptick in demand. Margaret Sharp, the chief education officer for the network, which operates under partnerships with districts, said that while the number of students overall has risen since 2020, the growth in the number of students entering the academies needing more than 15 credits to graduate—the highest tier of need—has been especially high. The number of students doubled from 500 to more than 1,000. Acceleration has opened five new academies in the last eight months alone in Florida, Kansas, South Carolina, and Texas because of rising demand, with three more opening this fall in Florida and Georgia.

Similarly, Superintendent Wayne Lovell of Mountain Education Charter High School, a network of 18 campuses across north Georgia that serves returning students and those at risk of dropping out of school districts in the region, said two-thirds of students now arrive two to three years behind on credits.

Teacher Joanne Reamy works with Benjamin Hain, 18, during an after school program at Mountain Education Charter High School in Woodstock, Ga. The Mountain Education Charter High School system has a program that pairs struggling students with adults who have faced similar challenges.

And Janice Mills, the principal of Spectrum Academy, a 6-12 grades reengagement school in Martin County, Fla., tells a similar story. While before the pandemic, Spectrum served 80 to 90 students at a time, the Florida school ended the last school year with a roster of 170 students and expects more than 150 this fall.

Acceleration, Mountain Education, and Spectrum all use hybrid online platforms for students to access classes and assignments at home or on campus, but educators at the schools said they use more intensive in-person academic tutoring, mental health programs, and other wraparound services now than they did before the pandemic, as students’ needs have intensified.

Students Share Their Stories on the Climb Back Up

Find out how three teenagers who fell off track in the thick of the pandemic found their way back on a path to high school graduation.

College & Workforce Readiness Anxiety and Isolation Kept Him Out of School. How an Alternative Program Helped
After years of worsening anxiety, Blaine Franzel’s prospects for high school graduation are looking up.
3 min read
Blaine Franzel, 17, and his mother, Angel Franzel, pictured at their home in Stuart, Fla., on Aug. 15, 2022. After struggling during remote learning and dropping out of public school, Franzel is now thriving at an alternative school where he is learning about aviation.
Blaine Franzel, 17, and his mother, Angel Franzel, live in Stuart, Fla. After struggling during remote learning and dropping out of public school, Franzel is now thriving at an alternative school where he is learning about aviation.
Josh Ritchie for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness What It Took to Get This Teenager Back on Track to Graduate
Nakaya Domina had been disengaging from school for years before she left her Las Vegas high school in 2019.
3 min read
Nakaya Domina pictured at her home in Las Vegas, Nev., on Aug. 12, 2022. After dropping out of school during the pandemic, she returned to a credit recovery program, where her "graduation candidate advocate" has helped her stay engaged. She expects to graduate this summer, and will then enter a postsecondary program in digital marketing.
Nakaya Domina dropped out of her public high school in Las Vegas in 2019 but managed to graduate this year with the help of a "graduation advocate" and a dropout recovery program.
Bridget Bennett for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness Teenager Balances Family Care, Work, and Credit Recovery on a Path to Graduation
Remote learning didn't start Gerilyn Rodriguez's academic problems, but it accelerated them.
3 min read
Gerilyn Rodriguez, 18, poses at Miami Carol City Park in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Aug. 19, 2022. After struggling with remote learning during the pandemic and dropping out of school, Rodriguez is now a student at Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies.
Gerilyn Rodriguez, 18, struggled with remote learning during the pandemic and dropped out of high school. A "graduation advocate" persuaded her to enroll in Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies in Miami, Fla.
Josh Ritchie for Education Week

Florida, for example, announced at the start of the 2021-22 school year that it was reinstating end-of-course exams, which had been waived from graduation requirements in 2020 and 2021. In response, Spectrum launched intensive math courses to help students catch up enough to take the tests. It also held after-school tutoring sessions and academic “boot camps” in July, after Martin County schools’ summer school programs normally end, to help students who need to pass Florida’s exams in reading and math or the ACT and SAT college-entrance tests.

What happened during remote learning, Mills said, was that “if students were determined to access the resources they needed to get good grades in the classes, they could do that, but students still ended up doing it with a lot of unexcused absences.”

But “many other students just kind of fell off, not attending and not doing the work, so we have to track them down,” she added.

For example, Aubrianna Morris said she was on track to graduate in 2021 from her North Charleston, S.C., high school before the pandemic. After more than a year of remote instruction, however, Morris left her school when she found she would have to retake a full semester of courses she already had taken online because she had not completed them during remote learning. Morris had already started working, and her mother persuaded her to attend the recovery program Lowcountry Acceleration Academy instead.

While Acceleration still uses an online platform for courses, teachers assess each student now on their academic needs as well as nonacademic barriers to graduating, such as family and work responsibilities, mental and physical health issues, and transportation or technology needs. Morris, for example, said she took one class at a time from 10 a.m. to noon before working weekday afternoons. Morris graduated from Lowcountry this February and has joined the U.S. Army.

Mentoring provides key support

Many programs have also upped their game by investing more heavily in individual mentoring and social-emotional supports for students, both through staff and community groups.

“Our kids typically do come to us having experienced some sort of trauma, but we are seeing more and more kids coming to us with trauma and mental health issues. It’s not unusual for us to see kids suffering with suicidal ideation,” said Sharp of Acceleration Academies. Acceleration now assigns each student a “life coach”—a licensed therapist or social worker—as well as a career coach for postsecondary guidance.

Mountain Education schools in Georgia used a different strategy, asking more than 1,000 teachers and staff members to write about their life experiences and the social-emotional lessons they had learned. Dubbed “Ridgerider Tales,” these essays became the backbone of a new social-emotional curriculum to teach students how to cope with anxiety, depression, problem solving, and other issues students reported as their biggest challenges during the pandemic.

“We recognized that it was going to be imperative to get the students back to a place where they felt safe and secure and felt supported at school,” Lovell said.

Mentor Caitlyn Crews works with students during an after school program at Mountain Education Charter High School in Woodstock, Ga. The Mountain Education Charter High School system has a program that pairs struggling students with adults who have faced similar challenges.

Teams of English teachers and counselors developed activities and lessons for each essay aligned to five social-emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking.

“So now, when a student enrolls, we do an initial assessment with regard to their [social-emotional] competencies, and then the student and mentor sit down with some of these tales to process,” said Martha Kent, the director of student and staff wellness at Mountain Education. “When students are learning through the narrative in elementary school, they’re identifying with the characters in a story. Well, these stories are not fictional; these, our kids know, came from our staff. So it makes it easier for kids to identify with them.” Students who are struggling with specific problems, such as caring for a sick family member, also get connected with staff members who had faced similar problems in the past.

The schools provide free mental health services, and each student creates a self-care plan in addition to their academic-recovery plan. Mountain Education created its own wellness app to help students access resources and track their goals.

Spectrum, meanwhile, now trains all staff to be certified in trauma-informed instruction, and everyone from teachers to school secretaries to Mills herself has been enlisted to conduct home visits after district social workers became overwhelmed.

“There are so many students needing to be addressed throughout the county, we had to start to think outside the box,” Mills said. “It’s much more important that someone from our school team shows up at the house to say, ‘Where’s Johnny? Why hasn’t he been here?’ and get down to the root cause of what’s happening.”

Each student has weekly in-person meetings with their school mentors, as well as phone or email check-ins throughout the week. Students also attend weekly “lunch and learn” sessions with outside community groups and employers to answer questions about local careers and trades, ending with a session on applying for jobs and “interview speed dating” with local companies. So far, Mills said, all the students who have participated in the program have been offered at least one job after graduation.

“I think in the long run, we don’t just want kids that are academic graduates. We want our graduates to be thoughtful and caring. We want them to be balanced. We want them to have a strong sense of how to plan and manage their time,” McNulty said. “Because I think the essence of education is not to be successful in school but to be successful when you leave school.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Dropouts Now Face a Steeper Climb to Earn A Diploma Post-Pandemic

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says New Data Paint Bleak Picture of Students' Post High School Outcomes
Students are taking much longer to complete credentials after high school than programs plan.
2 min read
Student hanging on a tearing graduate cap tassel
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness This East Coast District Brought a Hollywood-Quality Experience to Its Students
A unique collaboration between a Virginia school district and two television actors allows students to gain real-life filmmaking experience.
6 min read
Bethel High School films a production of Fear the Fog at Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023.
Students from Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., film "Fear the Fog"<i> </i>at Virginia's Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023. Students wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film through a partnership between their district, Hampton City Schools, and two television actors that's designed to give them applied, entertainment industry experience.
Courtesy of Hampton City Schools
College & Workforce Readiness A FAFSA Calculation Error Could Delay College Aid Applications—Again
It's the latest blunder to upend the "Better FAFSA," as it was branded by the Education Department.
2 min read
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, poses for a portrait in the Folsom Library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. A later-than-expected rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid, is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions. Noyola said he hasn’t been able to submit his FAFSA because of an error in the parent portion of the application. “It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved,” said Noyola, who receives grants and work-study to fund his education.
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stands in the university's library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. He's one of thousands of existing and incoming college students affected by a problem-plagued rollout of the revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid. A series of delays and errors is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions.
Hans Pennink/AP
College & Workforce Readiness How Well Are Schools Preparing Students? Advanced Academics and World Languages, in 4 Charts
New federal data show big gaps in students' access to the challenging coursework and foreign languages they need for college.
2 min read
Conceptual illustration of people and voice bubbles.
Getty