Special Report
IT Infrastructure & Management

Schools Innovate to Keep Students on Graduation Track

By Dakarai I. Aarons — June 03, 2010 10 min read
Signs congratulating B.M.C. Durfee High School seniors on their acceptance into colleges adorn the school’s hallways.
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Drawing on an expanding universe of academic and nonacademic data, school administrators across the nation are crafting tactics they hope will raise the number of high school students who earn diplomas on graduation day.

Thanks to advances in technology and accountability requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have more student-performance data at their disposal than ever before. That means they can more closely track how well students are, or aren’t, progressing through high school and which students are dropping out—and, ideally, catch potential dropouts before they leave school.

Today, for example, using the Minneapolis district’s data “dashboard,” school administrators can monitor student progress on state and local assessments to help target students’ weaknesses and strengths, says Bernadeia Johnson, the deputy superintendent for the 32,000-student school district.

“Data is a big part of trying to be clear about where students need to be placed and what their needs are,” she says.

At the high school level, Minneapolis administrators are monitoring whether students pass their courses, as well as the state exams required for graduation. Meanwhile, the district has made a push to ensure all students have access to more-challenging classes, by placing Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in all its high schools. The emphasis on keeping students in school and graduating them prepared for college and careers has also forced the district to take a deeper look at how it delivers instruction from school to school.

“We have to make sure we have consistent course codes and we are consistently teaching the standards and curriculum,” Johnson says. “If you are passing the course and not the state exam, where is the coherence in all of that?”

More Than Academic

In the 10,000-student Fall River, Mass., school district, administrators have found that focusing on the practical as well as the academic has helped improve graduation rates. (“From Analysis to Action,” this issue.)

That focus includes addressing something as seemingly straightforward as making sure students can get to school.

For instance, the district’s B.M.C. Durfee High School is located at the north end of Fall River, but many of its disadvantaged students live in the south end of town, nearly seven miles away. The Fall River district lacks its own bus service, and students rely on public buses for transportation.

But even discounted bus fares weren’t enough to keep all students attending regularly. While watching the loading zone across the street from school, Durfee Principal Paul Marshall and other administrators noticed that students were getting free rides to school whenever they could.

“You’d see these clown cars pull up with 10 to 15 kids in them,” Marshall recalls. “Some parents were making the decision about whether to send kids to school or to buy food. And we found that faculty who had been at the school for 20 to 30 years weren’t even aware that kids were going through this obstacle.”

Attendance data confirmed the pattern, and the district ultimately managed to supplement bus fare for students receiving federally subsidized school meals. The change helped raise expectations for parents, too.

“Now, we say to parents that transportation can no longer be an excuse if their child isn’t coming to school,” says Meg Mayo-Brown, Fall River’s superintendent.

For nearly two decades, Tennessee educators have been able to use data from the state’s value-added assessment system. A closer look at data in the 76,000-student Metropolitan Nashville district found higher rates of dropouts among English-language-learners, students who are parents, and those who have single parents—all of whom are more likely to work to help support their families. In response, the district created two high school academies to provide those students a no-frills finish to work toward their diplomas on a more flexible school-day calendar.

“[The academies] are very centered on those young people who have great family demands that prevent them from attending a regular school schedule,” says Jesse Register, Nashville’s superintendent. (“Guiding Students on Nontraditional Paths,” this issue.)

Early Warning

Bob Wise, the president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, says such data-driven strategies must be embedded in the culture of schools and school districts, not seen simply as an add-on.

Q&A: Bernadeia JohnsonDeputy Superintendent, Minneapolis Public Schools

Q The Minneapolis public schools have launched a “We Want You Back” campaign to bring back students who have dropped out. How did you identify these students, and how do you plan to bring them back?

We used a two-tiered approach in our “We Want You Back” campaign. For outreach during the 2009-10 school year, our student-accounting department provided us with data about all students who had been coded as “dropouts” the previous year because they stopped coming to school. We examined that data and targeted students who had already earned 40 credits toward graduation with an outreach campaign that involved telephone calls, posters, and mailings.

Our plans for the 2010-11 school year involve a broader approach. In partnership with governmental and community organizations, we will be mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to blanket the city of Minneapolis, going door to door to contact young people who have dropped out over the last five years and let them know we are here to support them and get them back into school. Staff and volunteers will be conducting weekly check-ins with these young people to help them enroll in school or a program and complete their high school education.

Q How has the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program helped your efforts to keep students in school and engaged?

We have placed AVID in all our middle and high schools to help our students realize their potential and gain the confidence to believe that they can take rigorous courses and go to college. AVID targets students in the academic middle who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and would be the first in their family to go to college. AVID fosters a college-going mind-set, teaching skills such as note-taking, organization, and time management.

Q You’ve made efforts to make sure principals have the right data at their fingertips. What do their dashboards tell them?

Electronic “dashboards” immediately appear on our principals’ computer screens when they log in each day. The dashboards summarize student attendance, teacher attendance, and [the] number of suspensions for the day and week, and give principals access to other achievment data as well. Secondary principals also have another data tool, called the “hotlist,” an early-warning system that allows principals to easily access and compare specific data fields such as attendance, behavior, GPA, credits earned, state test data, act scores, and failing grades. They can choose to slice this data by any demographic category and then share the early-warning lists with their site student-support team to provide timely interventions.

Q Expanding access to advanced coursework has been part of your push to challenge high school students and prepare them for college and beyond. How do you get students to take advantage of the courses?

As we moved to three attendance zones for our city as part of our overall strategic direction as a district, we implemented an equity framework for our comprehensive high schools. Under this framework, we offer four pathways to rigor that students can access: College in the Schools, Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program, and expanded postsecondary certification in career and technical education.

Three years ago, we eliminated entrance criteria for our advanced coursework and programs. This has helped us recruit students into higher-level courses and shift beliefs about who these classes are intended to serve. We believe that offering IB at six high schools—four more than in previous years—and increasing AVID supports will propel our efforts at providing more access to rigor and ultimately raise achievement.

“GM can’t make cars anymore just on good feelings, and we can’t continue to educate kids the same way,” says Wise, a former Democratic governor of West Virginia. “Every decision needs to have data showing why it works and helping teachers inform their decisions with data that helps improve student learning.”

Individual teachers often have information that is crucial to understanding what’s happening with a student, but in the absence of a data system, it doesn’t get shared, he says.

“If it is not in a comprehensive data system that someone is monitoring on a regular basis, all of that tends to slip through the cracks,” Wise says. “That’s why data is important. It can immediately capture what is happening in a student’s life and sound the warning so you can intervene.”

Making sure usable data ends up in the hands of those who need it the most—those in the classroom—is a constant challenge, says Johnson of Minneapolis.

“We have to get the right type of information to teachers about interventions and strategies,” she says. “We do push out a lot of data. The challenge is it being the right data that informs instruction.”

Having more adults focused on looking at the data and reaching out to students in need makes a difference, school administrators say. Using federal economic-stimulus funding, the 10,400-student Oconee County, S.C., school district has hired graduation coaches who give individual attention to students flagged as unlikely to graduate because of poor attendance and test scores. (“Coaching for Success,” this issue.)

Jose A. Torres, the superintendent of the 40,000-student U-46 school district in Elgin, Ill., says his district homes in on individual students to figure out how best to intervene with those most likely to drop out.

A data set tells him the grade level, grade point average, and number of suspensions and absences for students who are at risk of leaving.

“When I look at this list, we are trying to determine, for example, how do we help a kid in 9th grade who has two credits and 15 absences?” Torres says.

To create an early-warning system, the Milwaukee district has been working with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

The new system will record not only how many credits students are earning, but also the grades the students receive, in an attempt to make sure the district is graduating students who have viable options after high school.

“Whether or not you have passed a course is insufficient,” says Deborah L. Lindsey, the director of research and assessment for the Milwaukee schools. “We graduate a lot of kids with D averages. We wanted to better discriminate.”

Teachers and administrators will load information, along with other data points, into Milwaukee’s data dashboard as part of an early-warning system in the 2010-11 school year. Data dashboards are computer programs that pull together a variety of information, such as attendance, test scores, and behavior data, in one place so educators have a full picture when making decisions.

“High schools are interested in it,” Lindsey says. “They get that they are not just supposed to be preparing kids to get a diploma, but preparing them to be successful in the next place.”

The signs that students may not last until graduation often show up in the data teachers have collected in elementary and middle school, says Manuel J. Rivera, a former Rochester, N.Y., superintendent who is now the chief executive officer of the New York City-based Global Partnership Schools.

“You begin to see signs long before 9th grade—kids who don’t have interest, and that begins to impact their attendance,” he says. “You see kids who test quite well, but who are completely not engaged in learning.”

Teacher Jay Chatterton helps freshman Jose Soares draw straight lines in a general shop class at B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River, Mass.

They include some students, Rivera says, who are “inappropriately and incorrectly” labeled as having disabilities and end up languishing in special education classes.

Rivera’s organization is working to launch a graduation advancement program that will work with 7th, 8th, and 9th graders in participating districts who are over-age for their grades and behind in course credits—prime candidates for dropping out.

“There are so many young people who are in that stage,” Rivera says. “If you leave them that way, the system is going to fail them.”

To help bridge the gap, Milwaukee and other districts, including the 34,600-student Cincinnati school system, have instituted summer programs to help students make the transition from middle school to high school. Research shows 9th grade is the point when many districts see the steepest loss in students.

Middle school “is a different environment that looks at the whole child,” says Mary Ronan, Cincinnati’s superintendent. “Suddenly, [students] hit high school, and every 45 minutes, they change classes. They have six teachers with six different sets of expectations. You really have to have those management skills. Youngsters aren’t prepared to keep track of everything daily.”

Meeting the Challenge

Even when districts put programs in place, figuring out which students to target can be tricky. Technology and geographic limitations can get in the way.

Ronan says Cincinnati’s location creates special challenges for the district when staff members try to determine which students are, in fact, dropouts, and which students are simply enrolled elsewhere.

“Our kids cross the bridge and go into Kentucky. Indiana is 30 minutes away. We have youngsters in three different states, so that adds to the complexity,” she explains.

“They leave us, go to Kentucky, and come back. The child enrolls with a slightly different name, and all of the sudden the person who inputs it creates a new student ID number,” Ronan continues. “The ‘old’ child is a dropout, and we now have a new child. It’s not as easy as we all thought it would be.”

Officials in the Stockton, Calif., district have been able to reduce their dropout numbers in the past two school years through a major district-led campaign to identify students who have left high school, locate them, and lure them back, or, in some cases, to mark them off the dropout rolls after confirming that they’ve enrolled someplace else. (“District Targets Dropout Figures,” this issue.)

In Cincinnati, Ronan says, a small-schools initiative funded by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was key in helping the district raise its graduation rate from 51 percent in 2000 to 80.5 percent in 2009. Another factor, Ronan says, is the school choice program the district put in place at the high school level.

Rather than being assigned to the nearest high school, Cincinnati students choose from a list of schools based on their career interests.

The process, managed electronically, places about 90 percent of students in one of their top two choices.

“I think that helps keep younsters in school, too,” Ronan says. “If you were assigned to the high school down the street and it didn’t offer things you were interested in, there was no hope to keep you in school.”

Hoping not all dropouts are lost to them forever, some districts are working to bring those young people back.

The Minneapolis district, for example, launched a “We Want You Back” campaign last fall, says Johnson, who will become Minneapolis’ superintendent next month.

The district, working with local organizations, held community meetings in which former students could connect with high school counselors to help them figure out their best options, whether it was returning to high school to finish work for a diploma or pursuing a General Educational Development credential, even though GED recipients don’t count as district graduates.

In fall 2010, the district plans to expand its effort, with a door-to-door campaign to recruit more students.

“We want people to drop back in to Minneapolis [schools],” Johnson says. “The key to this is not just to connect with people, but to identify the supports to help them.”

Senior Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.


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