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Articles: At-Risk

Education Commissioner Terry Holiday says Kentucky students have made gains in college career readiness.

Terry Holliday knows something about what makes a school district work. Having come up through the ranks, from band director and assistant principal to principal, superintendent, and, in 2009, to Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Holliday has seen first-hand how schools and districts can get on track for success. He spoke to District Administration about what Kentucky has done to turn around low-performing schools.

Pamela Cantor is the president and CEO of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that partners with public schools to address the challenges to teaching and learning that stem from poverty.

There are alternatives to meting out punishment that treats our school children like criminals. Instead of sending students to the principal’s office or worse—calling police into classrooms to deal with disorderly conduct—schools can equip their teachers with tools proven to create safe, supportive learning environments and defuse disruption. The very things that mitigate student stress and bad behavior make a school what it’s supposed to be: a healthy and productive place to learn.

Native American students face a dropout rate of over 12 percent—more than double that of their white peers and higher than that for black and Asian students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

High teacher turnover rates and few native teachers in the classroom are part of the problem, says David Thomas, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson. The Indian Education Professional Development Grant seeks to change that by providing Native Americans a chance to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree and become teachers or administrators.

Mentoring programs are a strategy at the middle school level aimed at improving graduation rates. Connecticut’s Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program, launched in 2001, pairs college students with middle school students below grade level in math and English.

Adjust to student needs. The most successful schools take students from all cultural and educational backgrounds and adjust to their needs, says William Parrett, director of the Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies at Boise State University. This means tutoring and after-school, weekend, or summer programs. Districts may also have to redistribute funds to schools most in need.

Students who are identified early as at-risk and get support like extra reading have a better chance at graduating high school. But many students are unable to access early education opportunities and, research says, fewer than half of poor children are ready for school at age 5.

“People don’t often think about preschool as [an element of] dropout prevention,” says Marty Duckenfield, spokesperson for the National Dropout Prevention Center. “They think of the surly high school kid with behavior problems—but it goes back to other issues, and one is early childhood education.”

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.

Lynn B. Moody meets with students on the Sullivan Middle School Student Advisory Council to the Superintendent last December to discuss student issues and concerns.

“Every day on my way home from work I ask myself one question: ‘Did I do anything today that affected the life of one child positively?’” says Rock Hill (S.C.) Public Schools Superintendent Lynn B. Moody.

After years of controversy, court battles, and a disbanded cultural studies program, the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District is turning to a new program to raise the achievement of Hispanic students.

For generations, teachers in the early elementary years have urged their young pupils to use their brains. They’re still offering the same encouragement, but nowadays they can know even more about what they’re talking about.

Recent advances in neuroscience—from detailed scans of the brain to ongoing research on teaching methods that increase cognitive development—have ushered in a new era of “brain-based” education.

America’s dropout crisis is so severe that one in four students does not finish high school. Unless graduation rates increase, nearly 12 million students will likely drop out over the next decade, with an estimated national loss of $1.5 trillion in lost wages and increased social costs due to crime and health care, according to a 2012 report “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic.”

The Whittier Union High School District administrators who organized the Whatever It Takes campaign.

In 1969, a concern with the deep inequity of students’ experiences and opportunities in traditional school systems first drove social studies teacher Rick DuFour to begin advocating for the kind of reforms that would jell into his transformative model, Professional Learning Communities at Work, some 16 years later. The core belief of the PLC at Work model—that all students should have access to the most rigorous curriculum and that all students should learn, was counter to common practices in the era when DuFour taught.

Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District

Scott Smith once led efforts for North Carolina’s technology educators, when he served as president of the N.C. Technology in Education Society (NCTIES), the state’s affiliate of the International Society for Technology in Education. Now, he is chief technology officer for the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District—a suburban town located 20 miles north of Charlotte. It’s one of the only public school districts in the country to issue laptops to every student in grades 3-12.

Kids collaborate on an assignment in an after-school program.

Effective after-school and expanded learning programs can play a vital role in student success. In fact, when researchers at the Harvard Family Research Project analyzed a decade of research and evaluation studies a few years ago, they concluded that “children and youth who participate in after-school programs can reap a host of positive benefits in a number of interrelated outcome areas—academic, social/emotional, prevention, and health and wellness” (Little, Wimer, & Weiss, 2008).

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