Reclaiming the Future for Students at Risk

Reclaiming the Future for Students at Risk

New approaches to dropout prevention.
Clark County Superintendent Dwight D. Jones, right, meets with one student last September.

To add to the busy schedules of high school principals and assistant superintendents, they go door-to-door to speak with students—and their parents—in the Clark County (Nev.) School District. These students have dropped out of high school, and administrators are encouraging them to return and pursue a diploma.

The Clark County program, known as Reclaim Your Future, has targeted dropouts for the past two years, while the district has intensified efforts to keep current students from dropping out. The Nevada district is not alone. From the largely rural enclave of Seaford, Del. to the small town of Columbus, Miss., superintendents and their schools are implementing comprehensive and aggressive programs to retain students in danger of dropping out and to recover others who have already left high school without a diploma.

Hoping to leave a trail of best practices, organizations and companies also have begun to support and fund the most promising district and community programs nationwide. America’s Promise Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group with the support of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, established Grad Nation Communities almost three years ago to highlight, support, and connect nearly 60 districts nationwide working with communities to keep students in schools.

Last year, AT&T launched its Aspire initiative, which provides $250 million over five years to districts and local nonprofit organizations dedicated to dropout prevention. Last August, Aspire distributed the first $10 million to 47 recipients, from the Vallejo (Calif.) Unified School District and the Boston (Mass.) Public Schools to the Urban League of Greater Hartford, Conn. and the Boys and Girls Club of Green Bay, Wis. “Raising graduation rates and keeping kids in school who would otherwise drop out is our laser focus,” says Beth Shiroshi, AT&T’s vice president of sustainability and philanthropy.

It’s high time for new dropout prevention programs, say early adopters and other advocates. “The issue has always been one of those things in the back of superintendents’ minds,” observes Martha Liddell, superintendent of the Columbus (Miss.) Municipal School District.

So Liddell has launched an ambitious school- and community-based program as an antidote to the district’s rising dropout rate. “What’s been missing at the superintendent’s level is that sense of urgency,” Liddell explains.

Organizations focused on the dropout problem in American schools, such as America’s Promise and the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) at Clemson University in South Carolina, are all about urgency, so much so that the website of the former provides a running tally of new dropouts nationwide. The number ticks up every 26 seconds.

It adds up to 1.2 million high school dropouts a year, says John Gomperts, America’s Promise president and CEO. “Twenty five percent of young people are not graduating.” For African American and Hispanic students, the number is roughly 65 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The Silent Epidemic

As the alarming dropout numbers have become more apparent, the long term consequences have drawn increasing concern, as well. According to the NDPC, the number of dropouts annually can cost the United States $200 billion over the lifetime of those individuals, through greater amounts of public assistance they are likely to require to the “school-toprison pipeline.”

And three quarters of the inmates in state prison do not finish high school, reports the Alliance for Excellent Education. “[The dropout problem] is costing our society a lot of money,” says Marty Duckenfield, NDPC’s public information director. “It’s become an issue of ‘pay me now’ (through dropout prevention programs) or ‘pay me later.’”

What’s added urgency to this “Silent Epidemic,” as America’s Promise has termed it, is the changing employment landscape facing today’s high school students. “Once upon a time and not so long ago, it was possible [for high school dropouts] to get a solid manufacturing job working on an assembly line with a good hourly wage,” explains Gomperts, noting those jobs have increasingly disappeared here.

“Kids could do blue collar work or join the military,” agrees Bret Cormier, an assistant professor of education at Kentucky State University. “Now even the military requires high school graduates.” And high school dropouts cannot pursue further education and jobs requiring 21st-century skills, Cormier adds. “In this new climate of the Common Core and college and career readiness, dealing with the dropout crisis has taken on a new emphasis,” he says.

Going to Great Lengths in Nevada

The Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas, has piloted Reclaim Your Future, whereby teams of administrators and volunteers from the community have fanned out on a Saturday in September and again in January to visit about 300 high school dropouts. The list of high schools participating today has expanded from 10 just a year ago to 14 of the district’s 70 schools.

Clark County’s Deputy Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and a principal joined in this past January, arriving unannounced at the house of two brothers who had left high school. “We talked to them about why they had disconnected and how we could provide them with what it would take to reconnect. They said that they were behind in their achievement, they were missing course credits, and they had also gotten into some trouble with the law,” recalls Skorkowsky, who adds that their mother was part of the conversation.

“That personal contact with students and family and sitting down together can make all the difference,” Skorkowsky says, noting that both have since returned to the district’s high school program.

Of course, retaining those students is the bottom line, says Skorkowsky, who points out that the visits to 300 homes this past September netted 157 former dropouts, 135 of whom returned for a second term, either on campus or through centers run by an educational service company providing small-group instruction and online credit-recovery programs. The district also has mounted a wideranging effort to keep students from dropping out in the first place through a program that identifies at-risk seniors and stays in touch with them and their parents. All principals are required to know those students by name and to monitor a checklist that itemizes the areas in which they are struggling or need to recover credit.

Over the past two years, the district also has recruited 2,000 volunteer adult mentors from local non-profit organizations and businesses and trained them in listening and advising skills. The mentors meet at least once a week (and stay in touch more often by phone or email) with their assigned students, pointing them to the district’s credit retrieval courses (either in the classroom or online), test prep instruction, and alternative schools.

The mentors also talk with students about problems outside of school—from homelessness to parents being absent due to working multiple jobs. And they convey the message that future employers, such as the mammoth Las Vegas hospitality industry, require high school diplomas, district leaders say.

Last year, the district launched a summer program that provides courses for credit recovery or allows students to train for and retake proficiency exams in courses they have failed. This year, the high schools are also accommodating fifth-year seniors needing credits to graduate. In the past, those students would have been relegated to less structured adult education centers. “The message about the need to complete a high school diploma program is being heard across the district more than before,” Skorkowsky says.

It Takes a Village in Delaware

In Seaford, Del., however, where just one high school has 800 students, Shawn Joseph, the superintendent of the Seaford (Del.) School District, has been pushing a similar message in his community. “Our dropout rate is significant. Only about 68 percent of our students are graduating,” says Joseph, who came to the district over a year ago. “And right now, 40 percent of the students in our district are at risk based upon current reading levels. We’re a rural community and a lot of our children, for some reason, don’t see education as important. We have an expectations crisis.”

Prior to his arrival, Joseph points out, Seaford had no strategic plan—or sense of priority—regarding dropout prevention. So Seaford joined Grad Nation Communities, developed by the America’s Promise Alliance. The focus of the Grad Nation program is on engaging local communities in dropout prevention efforts and providing guidance and communication tools. “We had to openly acknowledge that we have a problem and publicize it to our community,” Joseph explains. “And the community really had to put safety nets in place for students susceptible to dropping out. When those students drop out, they’re hard to get back.”

At the start of the school year, Joseph convened a “grand summit” of community stakeholders—including almost 50 representatives from non-profit organizations, businesses, the Parent Teacher Association and the mayor’s offce, and school principals. Throughout the fall, participants drafted goals and action steps, which are being reviewed publicly now. Those steps—which would be implemented next fall—include a plan to have Nanocoke Hospital, the town’s largest employer, release employees during school hours to tutor at-risk students. On another front, the Seaford district has tapped local businesses to provide internships for those students. Local retailers, meanwhile, are funding Barnes & Noble gift cards as rewards for students who read 20 books a year outside of typical school work.

Joseph insists that the town also needs to go beyond concrete steps. “Everyone in the community needs to express the value of education, and the children need to hear messages at multiple venues, from churches to local grocery stores to doctors’ offces,” he emphasizes. “The only way to solve this problem is by being on the same page.” 

Project 2020 in Mississippi

In the Columbus school district, Superintendent Liddell has just launched the 2020 Project to reach an 85 percent high school graduation rate by that year—an ambitious goal considering that only 70 percent of the district’s students graduate now and the percentage has decreased from 80 percent more than a decade ago.

“Ninth grade has been our conundrum,” says Liddell, who disaggregated data in areas such as achievement levels and school attendance to find the root indicators for potential dropouts. Among those findings: a lot of tardiness and absences, as well as failing grades in core subjects, during the first semester of ninth grade.

The district now provides one-on-one mentoring to those students via volunteers from local organizations, such as the United Way, the Columbus Teachers’ Association, and local church groups.

Liddell has also worked at getting businesses—including a large steelmaker, an aerospace technology company that manufactures drones for the military, and several renewable energy companies—to offer apprenticeships to students in the process of recovering credits and even to hire them part-time.

“We’re saying to these students, ‘Not only will you graduate high school, but you have the opportunity to work in some of the nation’s best industries,” says Liddell.

This year, for those students who have dropped out already, Columbus has established three centers at the facilities of local nonprofit organizations. The centers are equipped with Chromebooks donated by Google and life coaches who are supplied by the district and who work with students on sticking with the program and managing their outside problems.

The $158,000 start-up budget for the centers is covered by grants from Walmart, the AT&T Foundation, and the Mississippi Department of Education. Liddell predicts that the per capita funding the district will receive for each re-enrolled student will help the program become self-sustaining.

For their part, students who do complete credit recovery goals not only receive the praise of their coaches, they also receive bonuses—including iPods and Kindle Fires—for their success. “As they meet their goals, we celebrate with them,” says Liddell.

America’s Promise Alliance’s Grad Nation program is even more optimistic, aiming for a 90 percent high school graduation rate nationwide by 2020, with no school registering less than 80 percent. That’s not as impossible as it sounds concludes the National Dropout Prevention Center’s Duckenfield. “There are answers,” he says. “We just have to look at what works.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.

Resources

America's Promise Alliance, www.americaspromise.org

AT&T's Aspire, www.att.com/gen/press-room?pid=22591

National Dropout Prevention Center, www.dropoutprevention.org


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