Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Reasons to Drop Out—and to Stay

May 31, 2013 14 min read
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Dropouts give a common array of reasons for leaving school. Targeted dropout-recovery programs have been created in response.

Pointing the Way to a More Open Future


If students drop out of high school because they are bored and don’t see what they are learning as relevant to their future, it can be tough to get them interested in more of the same.

The Back on Track Through College model aims to re-engage out-of-school youths ages 16 to 26 by encouraging them to think about a career and earn college credentials as they work toward a high school diploma.

Developed by Jobs For the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit education and research organization, the Back on Track program provides individual counseling to help students chart a course of study linked to their own long-term goals.

“Young people who have dropped out can be extremely discouraged about their ability and capacity to graduate from high school or go on to postsecondary education,” says Lili Allen, the program’s director.

At first, the program focuses on enriched preparation. Students are told they are “college material” and immersed in a college-going culture that emphasizes deep learning over testing. They progress at their own pace in alternative schools and programs, using a competency-based approach, and the curriculum builds to become increasingly challenging.

Next, students enroll in credit-bearing college coursework. They receive intense academic support and help develop good study habits and time-management skills to ensure success in early-college classes.

The third phase provides first-year, postsecondary support to improve the odds of persisting in college. First-year students are contacted at least monthly by a designated mentor to help them make good choices and connect with campus support providers.

The Back on Track model was developed about four years ago in collaboration with two other youth-serving nonprofits, YouthBuild USA and the National Youth Employment Coalition, and is in use in a handful of cities across the country.

Bronx Arena High School, a 125-student New York City public school serving students ages 16 to 21, is offering the first phase of the Back on Track model. Principal Ty Cesene says students get all their individualized coursework upfront and can work at their own pace through the blended curriculum. One teacher takes ownership over a student’s learning, and students are placed in small groups of 25 with a counselor. When successful students return, they often tell the teachers and the counselors that it was the support they received and the lessons in how to self-manage their work that gave them a leg up in college, says Cesene.

—Caralee Adams

Incorporating Academics Into Workplace Rhythms


Some students just never fit into the academic pace and instructional mode of traditional schools. That’s why some educators are trying to engage students with programs that more closely mirror the workplace.

In the wake of the economic downturn in 2008, the 3,100-student Fred C. Beyer High School in Modesto, Calif., partnered with the Williamsburg, Va.-based for-profit firm AdvancePath Academics Inc. to set up an alternative program for former dropouts and other students significantly behind in credits for graduation. The result was AdvancePath Academy, where students learn in small groups and on their own in classes designed to mimic a typical office workspace—down to the cubicles, computers, and swivel chairs.

Each day, students attend four-hour morning, afternoon, or evening “shifts.” They work through classes both online and in-person, and each student collaborates with teachers to create an individual career profile that aligns his or her coursework and life skills with career goals.

“Once they start to see some success, they become very transaction-oriented,” says John Murray, AdvancePath’s chairman and chief executive officer. “We go through the data with them: ‘You are supposed to be here five days a week and you’re only here three; if you were here four days a week, here’s when you would graduate, rather than way out here. We can cut down your time by six months if you will just work with us.’ It’s very easy for them to listen to that.”

The National Dropout Prevention Network honored the school in 2012 with one of its Crystal Star Awards for “overall effectiveness in improving educational outcomes for at-risk students.”

In the 2011-12 school year, 237 students enrolled in the academy, most of them more than a year behind in credits for graduation. By the end of the school year, 135 of those students had graduated with a regular diploma, and about 70 of the remaining students returned the next year, having closed their credit gap by 75 percent.

—Sarah D. Sparks

A Lifeline for Teenage Parents


When MacKenzie Adams found out she was pregnant at the age of 14, people told her she wouldn’t graduate from high school.

“I wanted to prove to them that I could graduate,” Adams says. “I knew I had to support my child. I have to grow up and do what I need to, to provide for him.”

The Graduation, Reality, and Dual-Role Skills program, or GRADS, in Washington state helped her do just that.

According to a study from the Washington, D.C.-based America’s Promise Alliance, only 40 percent of teenage mothers nationwide complete high school. In the GRADS program, 81.7 percent of students participating during 2011-12 finished the year with either a high school diploma, a GED, or plans to stay in GRADS another school year.

Originally developed in Ohio, GRADS was launched in Washington state in 1983 to teach pregnant and parenting teenagers the skills they need as parents and help connect them to social services while they continue attending high school. There are 25 programs in schools across the state, with a total enrollment of about 500 students.

One of the most important facets of the program is the child-care services for student-parents.

“The child-care centers are what are costly,” says Mary Nagel, the family and consumer-sciences education program supervisor for the state schools superintendent. “But they are the piece that keeps the teens in school. If the students have child care at their schools, they are more apt to come to school and attend class. If they have to drop their children off somewhere else, then it’s easier to not necessarily make it to class.”

The program seeks to give students the foundational skills they’ll need to graduate from high school, raise their families, and gain economic independence. Students participating in the GRADS program take one class, taught by family and consumer-sciences teachers, and one lab in the child-care center as part of their regular high school class schedule.

In the lab, students work in the child-care center with the center’s staff and GRADS teachers to apply the theories they learned in class. They practice positive interactions with their children, including discipline and proper speech, and then later analyze their lab interactions.

“The ultimate role of the program is to give kids confidence in their parenting abilities, to help them gain academic confidence so they stay in school, and help them think about and transition to the next steps in their lives,” Nagel says.

Adams, now 17 and preparing to graduate from the GRADS program in Aberdeen, Wash., says it has been “really helpful.”

“I know what to expect with my child, what I should watch for, how to talk to him and understand him,” she says. “I’d be a way different parent without the GRADS program.”

—Alyssa Morones

Combining Learning With Learning to Earn


When it comes to their careers, many high school dropouts sacrifice long-term financial stability for the short-term need to make money right away.

But integrating work and school can also be a powerful motivator, many experts say.

The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity 2012 finds former high school dropouts are the group most likely to start their own business, accounting for 17 percent of all new businesses created that year.

YouthBuild U.S.A. operates 273 programs for about 10,000 low-income, out-of-school youths in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The program trains former dropouts in construction and other career skills as they build affordable housing and take on other community projects.

The flagship Philadelphia YouthBuild Charter School serves older returning students, ages 18 to 21. They spend half the day in core academic classes, while also training for trade certification.

Each year, the students participate in multiple building projects, from renovating local eyesores to helping communities in Guatemala and along the U.S. Gulf Coast build and rebuild after natural disasters.

Ciera Russum, who graduated in 2012 graduate and is now studying plumbing at a local technical college, said transforming a house in the program went hand in hand with transforming her own life.

“I would come home from working on the house and try out things I’d learned on my mom’s house—like fixing the hole in her ceiling,” she wrote in the YouthBuild Charter School’s student newspaper. “This makes me imagine all the things I used to doubt that I actually can do. This house makes me feel like I can do anything.”

—Sarah D. Sparks

An Alternative to Expulsion


When students are expelled from high school in the Oceanside, Calif., school district, they are required to meet rehabilitation conditions before they can return to school. The problem is that students often get lost in the process.

“Once students leave the district, we have no knowledge of how they are doing academically until they return,” says Barry Tyler, the administrator of the Alternative Learning Center. “Students who have been expelled have the choice to attend county schools, but if they don’t like those, often they stop going to school altogether.”

To give those students another schooling option, Oceanside implemented its Alternative Learning Center, an independent-study program, in 2013. At the center, housed at Ocean Shores High School, students spend two hours working on their own in class, where teachers provide additional instruction if needed, and three hours working online from their homes every weekday.

The program is designed to serve students with special needs or in special education, those looking to accelerate their learning through online study, and students with behavioral issues, including attendance, suspension, or expulsion.

But the Alternative Learning Center is more than an independent study program, according to program officials.

Staff members link expelled students to community resources to help them fulfill their rehabilitation requirements and provide support for their families. Therapists are available to meet with all students, and program staff members make sure that the students stay on track.

If an expelled student completes his or her rehabilitation through the program, the district will expunge the expulsion from the student’s record.

“I enjoy [working independently] because I can get a class done faster,” says junior Chelsea Ayala, who was expelled from school earlier this year. “If you need help, you have a teacher that will give you help until you understand and you don’t have to deal with the whole class.”

Barbara Perez, a co-creator of the center and the principal at Ocean Shores, says the program is a “perfect option” for Ayala, who had never been in trouble before. “There’s a consequence, but it doesn’t change the course of a student’s life forever like an expulsion would,” Perez says.

Program leaders also work with the district’s central office to identify students who have been recommended for expulsion. If the student seems a good fit for the alternative program, he or she is offered a place there in lieu of getting kicked out of school.

In making that assessment, administrators first confirm that the boy or girl would not be a danger to other students or staff members or disruptive to the school environment.

Also, the student must have the appropriate aptitude to work independently. “They really have to be motivated to work on their own from home,” Tyler says.

—Alyssa Morones

Going Door to Door for Truants


A successful dropout-recovery and -prevention program in Richmond, Va., has moved into a new frontier: elementary school.

The Dropout Prevention Initiative, the brainchild of Richmond schools Superintendent Yvonne Brandon, began three years ago and takes a new but entirely low-tech approach to an old problem. Its recovery specialists examine attendance rolls to find students who have stopped attending school, and then go door to door to find those children and bring them back to school.

The 23,000-student district’s attention to truancy and dropout recovery has gotten results. Its dropout rate decreased from 15 percent to 1 percent from the 2003-04 school year, when the focus on absenteeism was stepped up, to the 2009-10 school year, and its truancy rate hovered around 8 percent in 2011-12, down from 26 percent in 2003-04.

Program educators launched the elementary-level initiative after realizing they weren’t reaching students early enough. “Most of the children we’re dealing with at 17, 18, or 19 really started missing school back in 2nd and 3rd grade,” says Charles Johnson, a violence-prevention specialist with the district.

To target younger students, the district’s dropout team in February began piloting Every Day Counts at six elementary schools. School-based teams hold meetings with the parents of students who have missed six or more days of school, and any student who’s missed more than 10 days receives a home visit from a recovery specialist.

Each student’s situation is different, says Angela Ransom Jones, the psychologist in charge of the recovery program, and the work doesn’t end once the student is back in school. Some older students might return to finish their GED, while younger ones might return to the high schools they left. All the returning students receive ongoing attention from school staff.

Going door to door can work in unexpected ways, Johnson says. Even if the student isn’t at home, “when you engage in the right conversation, suddenly you’ll find a parent who says, ‘I’d like to get back enrolled, too.’ ” Johnson describes one student who’d come back to school, and then brought back his girlfriend, who then brought her neighbor. “They might know kids who don’t show up on our radar, and then we get them back to school.”

—Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Making Up for Failure


Whether it’s failing a grade or class, weak study skills, or just a rough transition to high school, many dropouts report that academic failure led them to abandon school.

For nearly 40 years, the private, nonprofit Street School Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., has been working to help vulnerable dropouts find stability and academic success.

As its name implies, Street School serves out-of-school youths, including many who are homeless or from highly mobile families, says Lori McGinnis-Madland, the school’s executive director.

The students often arrive more than a year behind in the credits needed for graduation. During the 2011-12 school year, Street School’s 121 students, ages 14 to 19, more than doubled their average GPA from 1.2 points to 2.6 points (on a scale of 0 to 4), and completed 89 percent of the courses needed for graduation, up from the 57 percent of needed courses they had completed before coming to the school.

McGinnis-Madland attributes the students’ academic gains in part to the program’s The World Is Our Classroom curriculum, which integrates coursework with field trips, wilderness excursions, and community-service projects. Street School also connects students with career internships for work-study credit in 2012—but only if they had been diligent in attending regular class periods, too.

“We believe in learning on your feet instead of your seat,” McGinnis-Madland says.

The school’s academic programs are bolstered by intensive therapy, substance-abuse counseling, help for students returning from the juvenile justice system, and college planning with local teachers who volunteer their time to mentor the students.

Nonacademic support can be crucial to helping students with a long history of academic failure, says Julia Wilkins, a research associate at the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University in North Carolina, who is not associated with the school. “These students feel like they slipped through the cracks, and in many cases, they feel they were deliberately pushed out of school,” she says. “It’s critical to have a caring adult.”

Street School tracks its graduates for up to three years after leaving the program. So far, of the 38 students with senior-level credits in 2011-12, 36 earned a diploma. Thirty-three of them are now in college, two are in a technical school, and another is working full time.

—Sarah D. Sparks

SOURCES FOR STATISTICS: National Center for Education Statistics; Education Week
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Reasons to Stay


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