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College & Workforce Readiness

Federal Funds Fuel High School Improvement Plans

By Catherine Gewertz — October 28, 2010 6 min read
Teacher Emma Saucedo, left, helps Ashlee Underwood during English class at Sunnyside High. The Sunnyside district and two others will set up special classes to help returning and struggling students.

In the first wave of funding under a revitalized high school graduation initiative, the U.S. Department of Education is betting nearly $50 million that it can help states and school districts find better ways to hang onto students who might drop out and bring back those who have disappeared without diplomas.

Twenty-nine states and districts won grants last month of up to $3 million to work with schools whose dropout rates exceed their state average. The $46.6 million is envisioned as the first year’s installment on five-year grants, although subsequent years’ funding isn’t guaranteed, since the grants depend on the federal budget.

Crossing its fingers that the program maintains its current support for at least a few years, the Education Department hopes to use it to exert leverage on high school graduation rates, which hover around 70 percent nationally and can sink below 50 percent in poor communities.

The federal agency supports secondary school reform through other means, such as the Smaller Learning Communities program, which distributed $52 million in grants last month to help schools create more personalized arrangements, and School Improvement Grants, which are supplying $3.5 billion this year to help chronically underperforming schools, including scores of “dropout factories” where nearly as many students abandon high school as complete it.

But it stepped up its support of dropout prevention and recovery by securing $50 million for the High School Graduation Initiative in fiscal 2010. That program—formerly called the Dropout Prevention Initiative—got no money at all in the preceding three years and only $5 million a year in the three years before that.

Varying Approaches

Building up the program serves President Barack Obama’s goal of reclaiming world leadership in college completion, said Michael Yudin, who oversees the project as the department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives.

“This is a committed effort by this administration to focus on secondary schools and improve the graduation rate,” he said. “If students don’t graduate from high school, we are not going to make the college goal.”

Mr. Yudin noted that the program was reshaped not only by the huge boost in funding, but by emphasizing approaches to the dropout problem that newer research has shown to be more effective. Those include close monitoring of students’ attendance, behavior, and coursework in middle school to create “early warning systems” that alert educators to the need for early intervention.

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist whose work has helped shape the field’s approach to dropout prevention and recovery, said the revamped federal initiative “shows the evolution of thinking” on the topic. Instead of targeting strategies demographically—such as to low-income, minority, or special education students—the program now envisions targeting help to specific students who need it, by monitoring their trouble signs, or to schools with high concentrations of such students, he said.

By asking grantees to work with both high schools and their feeder middle schools and to team up with community partners, the program also recognizes the importance of intervening early and of drawing on the expertise of social-service groups to address the social-emotional needs of students who fell behind or dropped out, Mr. Balfanz said.

With its $3 million grant, the Colorado education department plans to work with 55 middle and high schools across the state. Thirty-three will get help with such strategies as analyzing student data, building early-warning systems, and strengthening their ties with community groups that can help with dropout prevention and recovery, said Judith Martinez, who oversees the work. The other 22 will receive less-intensive help, such as training in comprehensive approaches to dropout prevention and access to a toolkit of “best practices,” she said.

In Washington state’s rural Yakima Valley, three districts will share a $1.1 million grant to build better supports for students in their three high schools and four feeder middle schools.

The Sunnyside, Mabton, and Mt. Adams districts will create programs within each school, staffed with teachers and social workers, that offer smaller classes, personalized instruction, credit recovery, and social-emotional support for struggling students and returning dropouts, said Doug Rogers, the principal of Sierra Vista Middle School in the 6,000-student Sunnyside district, who helped write the grant proposal.

The three districts will move an early-warning system into their middle schools to catch students’ troubles earlier, he said, and case managers will watch and support at-risk students from middle through high school.

“This is a very staffing-heavy model we’re using,” Mr. Rogers said. “We wanted to make sure we had people to surround these kids with levels of support.”

An unusual aspect of the grant program is its emphasis on bringing back students who have dropped out. It actually gave more weight to a grant applicant’s recovery plans than it did to its early-identification and intervention plans, although all three were requested. Chicago, which won a $2.9 million grant, is one grantee with a keen eye toward the recovery work.

The 409,000-student district will create “acceleration institutes” at two high schools that will locate the schools’ recent dropouts, persuade them to return, and provide intensive academic and emotional support to help them finish their diplomas, said Molly Burke, the program director in the district’s office of student support and engagement.

Community Help

Social-service-community partners will help track down former students, then “re-engagement specialists” will pick up the ball to work with the teenagers and their families to bring them back into the fold, Ms. Burke said.

The “acceleration institutes,” which will stay open until 8 p.m., will offer returning students the chance to make up missed credits through a specialized online curriculum, overseen by literacy and math teachers, Ms. Burke said. Social workers and community-group employees will come to the institutes to offer counseling in life skills, career preparation, and any personal issues that hinder learning, she said.

Since Chicago already has alternative education programs for of older students who are further behind in their credits, the new grant will enable it to better serve younger, more recent dropouts, Ms. Burke said.

The beefed-up high school graduation initiative was seen as welcome reassurance for some activists who worried quietly that a much-needed focus on high school improvement could be lost in the country’s push for higher college-completion rates.

Phillip Lovell, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that presses for policies that drive high school improvement, counts himself in that group.

The added investment, he said, is “significant because we haven’t had a singular focus on high schools like this before.” He noted that high schools typically don’t get their share of federal funding: They serve one-quarter of the nation’s low-income students, but receive only 10 percent of its Title I money for disadvantaged students, according to the alliance’s analysis.

The fate of the graduation initiative in fiscal 2011 is uncertain, however. The U.S. Senate’s budget proposal doubles the program’s funding to $100 million per year, but President Obama’s budget request envisions consolidating it with other programs, putting a question mark over its future.

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Funds Fuel Graduation Initiatives

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