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College & Workforce Readiness

Many Dropouts Try—and Fail—to Return to School

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 31, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect statistic for the share of returning dropouts who later attained a high school diploma in a study of San Bernardino, Calif., youth. Fewer than one in five of those dropouts went on to get a diploma.

It takes time, patience, effort, and luck to find students who leave school and return them to the classroom. But getting them back is the easy part: Keeping them long enough to get a diploma is another thing entirely.

Jennifer Harris, the program evaluator for the high school graduation initiative in Washoe County, Nev., found that out the hard way. Back in 2008, the 63,000-student Reno-area district had a nasty shock when new federal graduation calculations showed it graduated a little more than half its incoming freshmen four years later. Eighteen of its high schools were dubbed “dropout factories” by a national research and advocacy group.

In response, the district launched a massive graduation initiative: early-warning data systems to alert principals to at-risk students, graduation advisers to keep students from leaving, and intense outreach to bring back the students who had already left.

Two years later, as the initiative was building momentum, Harris noticed a problem: “We found about 17 percent of the students who had come back dropped out again within the year,” she says. “We’ve gotten pretty good at finding and recovering students through our re-engagement centers, but we still find it a big challenge to keep them from redropping out once we’ve found them. Many of the reasons that led students to disengage in the first place are still there when the students come back.”

Washoe County is not alone in that struggle. There are no national figures on the number of dropouts who re-enroll, but studies of cities and districts find one-third to one-half of out-of-school youths do try at least once again to complete high school before aging out of the K-12 system.

Students often return more motivated to succeed—but then are “expected to navigate a complex maze of systems, services, and programs as they complete their education and prepare for a career,” researchers from the nonprofit international consulting group FSG found. “The greater the number of challenges youths face, the harder and more confusing this navigation becomes,” they wrote in a report.

Cycle of Frustration

So students drop out again. And again. And again, while their schools take financial and accountability hits every time they leave. Most state accountability systems give schools and districts little credit for re-enrolling students who have little chance of graduating within four years, or even six years for an extended graduation rate, says Andrew O. Moore, a senior fellow at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families in Washington.

Revolving Door


SOURCE: WestEd, “The Reenrollment of High School Dropouts in One Large, Urban School District”

As a result, once a returning student leaves a dropout-recovery program, “the kid’s in double jeopardy; there’s no great incentive for school districts to seek these kids out,” says Mark Claypool, a former social worker and the president and chief executive officer of Educational Services of America Inc., a Nashville, Tenn., for-profit that provides dropout-recovery programs in 24 states.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of returning students, BethAnn Berliner, a research associate for the federal regional educational lab at WestEd, in San Francisco, followed the 1,352 students who dropped out of San Bernardino, Calif., public schools between 2001 and 2006. More than 30 percent returned to school at least once—a handful of dogged souls came back three times—but in the end, fewer than one in five dropouts actually made it to graduation. The rest struggled a while longer, earning a few credits before giving up on high school for good.

“There’s the reality that these kids, the first time they dropped out, had probably been noteworthy in their behavior, and when they come back, they’re not always welcome; they have a reputation,” Claypool says. “That’s a strong headwind for these kids to move against.”

Boston policymakers have found that, particularly in the first year, students’ return can be tenuous: “If there’s a returning dropout and someone says to them, ‘You’re too old, why are you here?’ even if you’ve just negotiated to have them back in the schools, the next day they’re gone, that’s it,” says Kathy Hamilton, the youth-transitions director for the Boston Private Industry Council, a local community and workforce investment group that paired with the Boston schools to create one of the nation’s first “re-engagement centers” to identify, recruit, and place out-of-school youths.

It has worked with Boston schools to create rolling lists of chronically absent students for outreach every month, rather than at the end of each year, to find students in the critical first weeks after dropping out, figure out what went wrong, and help them find a way to continue high school. This year, the center is also testing the use of graduation coaches for former dropouts in two schools with high rates of multiple dropouts.

“The students just need more follow-up, more support, more help,” Hamilton says. “They need someone to talk to them and tell them it’s OK when things aren’t working out. Our first year, we showed some improvement among those who were coached as opposed to those who are not coached.”

A study by the Boston-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy found that among former Boston dropouts, 72 percent of those who re-enrolled through the re-engagement center were still attending a year later, compared with only 54 percent of those who came back directly to a high school.

Yet while there has been considerable progress in identifying the early warning signs that a student will drop out, Berliner and other researchers say there has been almost no research identifying when a returning student has turned the corner for graduation.

In fact, as Larry M. Perondi, the superintendent of the 20,300-student Oceanside, Calif., district says, the only real evidence most educators have that a dropout recovery is working is "[students’] fannies in a seat.”

Finding Positive Signs

The America’s Promise Alliance launched a research project this spring to identify the social, emotional, and academic characteristics of dropouts who successfully return to school and complete a diploma.

In the meantime, Harris has taken a more straightforward approach to identifying what helps returning students stay on track in Washoe: Have other students ask them.

Six of the 500 returning students in the district’s alternative school have created the Student Voice Project. The students, who left the district’s regular schools themselves, have been interviewing their peers on video about their thoughts on the school environment, student character, and adult support factors that contribute to academic persistence for returning students.

“It’s not always easy to take an honest look at our systems and have honest conversations about what we’re doing right and what we’re not doing,” she says. “But all you have to do is have a conversation with a student you know has been re-engaged, and it becomes a lot easier. If we’re going to make any change that leads to lasting results, we have to involve students.”

Haley R. Carlile, 16, is one of the student interviewers. She left her previous school after getting pregnant at 15, tried to take online courses for a while, and then opted to take her junior year at Washoe Innovations High School, the district’s alternative school, in part because she was looking for a closer relationship with teachers.

In fact, that relationship is something all the students Carlile has interviewed so far have requested. Carlile recommends that teachers who work with returning students should “just get to know the students and really try to understand their situation.”

“A lot of times adults will say, ‘Yeah I know life’s hard, but you have to do it anyway.’ They need to put themselves in students’ shoes and figure out how to help them not drop out,” Carlile says.

Washoe County must be doing something right: It graduated 70 percent of the class of 2012—a double-digit increase from 2008 that is among the most substantial growth in Nevada.

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