Reaching Dropouts with New Media
This article was originally published in Education Week.
Facing unrelenting pressure to raise anemic high school graduation rates, education leaders in Los Angeles are turning to YouTube, MySpace, text messaging, and the radio waves to reach students at risk of dropping out of school and lure back thousands who have already left.
The Los Angeles Unified School District—the nation’s second largest, with 708,000 students—is believed to be one of the first districts to use social-networking Web sites and text-messaging communications as a vital part of a dropout-reduction strategy.
Students who abandoned the city’s high schools and have come back to finish their diplomas will be the primary messengers to their at-risk peers in the new campaign, said Debra Duardo, the director of Los Angeles Unified’s dropout-prevention and -recovery program. They will post video testimonials on YouTube and build groups on popular MySpace message boards to spread the word about their own experiences and the alternatives for earning a diploma, which don’t necessarily require a return to one of the district’s giant four-year high schools.
With a list of at least 17,000 dropouts to target for recovery this school year, leaders in Los Angeles Unified said they must use a variety of strategies to find the youths who have already left school. The district’s graduation rates have been under fire—especially during Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign last year to gain some control over the school system.
But district officials will have to do more than simply get those students back in school for the program to be successful, experts say.
“The new-media approach is very creative and thoughtful and should reach kids where they are,” said Russlynn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland, Calif.-based research and advocacy group that supports increased rigor in high schools for all students. “For the district to take this on is really a big deal, but where they run a risk is if it ends up being dropout recovery for the purpose of recovery only and not for getting these kids meaningful diplomas that prepare them for college and work.”
Reaching More Students
Independent studies—including Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report—put the district’s graduation rate at no better than 50 percent. A Harvard University study showed that just 39 percent of Latino and 47 percent of African-American students in the district who should have graduated in 2002 actually did so.
District officials have said those figures are too low. They cite 25.5 percent as their latest dropout figure and have set a goal of reducing the dropout rate by 5 percent this year, Ms. Duardo said.
The new outreach enterprise—called My Future, My Decision —builds on an anti-dropout campaign the district launched just over a year ago with $10 million in federal Title I funds called the Diploma Project. District leaders recruited and hired 80 special counselors to work in the middle and high schools where the largest numbers of students at risk of academic failure are concentrated.
Those “diploma-project advisers” identify which students in their schools are most in danger of dropping out. They work with those children, meet their parents, and design an individual graduation plan that may include catching up on credits by taking online courses, enrolling in classes at a community college, and switching to an alternative placement such as continuation high schools, which are small schools for students older than 16 who may need evening courses and other accommodations if they work or have children.
The advisers also go door to door to find students who have already left school to try to lure them back. But that personal, labor-intensive approach has had limitations that drove district leaders to look for alternative ways to reach more students, Ms. Duardo said. They sought advice from the peers of the teenagers they most want to reach.
“This whole strategy was based on talking to kids who are at risk or who already dropped out, and finding out from them what would work best to bring them back to school,” Ms. Duardo said. “What they told us is that we needed to be online, on the social networking sites that they use to communicate with each other.”
Advertisements on two of Los Angeles’ youth-oriented radio stations have already been launched and will continue for several weeks. An advertising campaign is also under way to get youths to send a text message from their cellphones to a number that triggers an immediate return of messages to their phones—written in abbreviated “text speak”—with tidbits on the higher earning power of high school graduates and referrals to the district’s dropout-prevention Web site.
Gary Orfield, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles, a racial-justice organization that is housed at ucla, said that Los Angeles school leaders have been slower than educators in other large cities, such as New York and Chicago, to establish meaningful initiatives to address dropouts.
The district’s year-old Diploma Project is changing that, he said.
“I don’t think it was a priority for them just a few years ago,” said Mr. Orfield, who wrote the 2005 Harvard University study that revealed such dismal graduation rates in Los Angeles, especially for black and Latino males. “What they are doing now is a good start, but it really requires a very consistent, long-term focus across many levels and support services.”
Still, Mr. Orfield said, district leaders deserve credit for using creative methods to reach larger numbers of endangered students.
“Their dropout rates are staggeringly high, so I think they have to send messages to kids in ways where they will actually get them,” he said. “But more than just sending the message, it’s important what they say. We have to be blunt and tell them things like, ‘If you don’t get through high school, your lives are going to be a wreck.’ ”