Early warning data is vital to getting more students to graduation, but caution must be taken to avoid collateral damage

There are roughly 70,000 sixth graders in the state of Wisconsin — and every one of them has been assigned a number.

Falling between 0 and 100 — and based on algorithms that take into account attributes like on-time academic performance and attendance — these numbers represent each child’s expected chances of finishing high school on time. Any student whose score comes in under 78.5 is flagged as “high risk.” When that happens, their names are highlighted in red in a database administered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, according to a recent report from Marketplace’s Learning Curve.  

Here at NoDropouts, we’re big fans of data. Numbers aren’t a panacea, of course, but it’s not often that we find an educational problem that can’t at least be better understood with a hard look at the numbers. And better understanding often leads to better solutions.

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It's time to re-evaluate K-12 funding limits that impede dropout recovery

Larry Roberts/Post-GazetteNaira Burke is 17. Tamon Hatchin is 20. Tierra Crosby is 20, too.

These three students are among those featured in an article about Passport Academy Charter School in Pittsburg, which recently was featured in an article by The Post-Gazette.

Like Naira, Tamon and Tierra, the students at Passport — which specializes in dropout recovery — are different in many ways. But they’re alike in one key way: They’ve all been deemed capable of finishing the requirements for a diploma before the age of 21.

That might seem like a commonsense requirement for students entering a dropout recovery program — especially if you know that in most states public funding for K-12 education expires at the age of 22. We can’t expect Passport to educate its students without funding, after all — and why would it accept a student who has no reasonable chance of graduating?

But there’s a real problem here — and it’s not a problem with Passport or schools like it, but rather a problem with the way we view the idea of a free public education.

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When even graduates feel hopeless, what hope can there be for others at-risk of dropping out?

Michael Brown’s chance to take a cap-and-gown photo came three months before graduation. That’s because Normandy High School only had two graduation gowns, which needed to be shared by the entire senior class.

The paucity of opportunity reflected in the scarcity of caps and gowns also mirrored life after graduation — and does so for students from many high-poverty schools across the nation.

Were Brown’s opportunities widened by his graduation from high school? Certainly.

But was that enough? Clearly not.

Tonight’s grand jury decision not to indict the officer who fatally shot Brown came after an exhaustive review of the evidence at hand. While many will disagree with the decision, perhaps we all can concur it is time to have a similarly exhaustive review of the conditions that have resulted in a dismal 53 percent graduation rate at Brown’s former high school — and which even lead graduates to feel desperate, hopeless and angry.

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No one-size-fits-all solution to dropout prevention and recovery

There was a time, said Riverside County Office of Education superintendent Ken Young, that some teachers and administrators openly acknowledged being happy when certain students would drop out of school.

Speaking as part of a panel of educators at the Alternative Accountability Policy Forum today, Young said such educators would brag about having “one less student to worry about” and even those educators who were interested in recovering dropped out students would only do so “if we get around to it.”

But culture is changing, Young said — and not only are many administrators increasingly dedicated to keeping students in school, but they’re working hard to provide as many paths as possible for students who need help getting to graduation day or re-enrolling in school.

“We should never discount the possibility of what a student can do when given an opportunity,” Young said. “Where we used to see five or six alternative programs for high school students, now we’re seeing 30 or 35.”  

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Do critically at-risk students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?

Alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, obesity, heart disease, cancer, liver disease and skeletal fractures.

Studies show that childhood experiences are related to increases in all of these conditions.

Now add to that list post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition conventionally associated with combat experiences by soldiers. And while the triggering mechanisms for that trauma is often very different than that faced by combat survivors, the symptoms can be similar.

“These kids have difficultly regulating their emotions, and their motivation, if in fact it is there at all, is variable,” said Amy Lansing, the director of Cognitive and Neurobehavioral Studies at the U.C. San Diego School of Medicine. “The idea that you can just pull yourself up by the bootstraps is a myth.”

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It's time for better training for teachers of at-risk students

It’s tough enough being a new teacher.

Being a new teacher in a school dedicated to serving at-risk students? That’s tougher still.

But new teachers shouldn’t be afraid of such challenging assignments  — and administrators at such schools shouldn’t be afraid of new teachers. With the right preparation, in fact, it can be a perfect fit.

That was the message from a panel of educators, administrators and experts at the 2014 Alternative Accountability Policy Forum in San Diego, where more than 150 people gathered to discuss how to improve outcomes for students who organizers of the conference describe as “at-promise youth.”

As the name implies, the conference is also focused on how to ensure programs and schools that serve these students are held accountable for outcomes — while acknowledging the challenges these students face are quite different from the majority of their peers at traditional schools.

Among the most important ways to achieve these goals is comprehensive teacher training with the specific intended outcome of preparing educators for the trials they’ll face serving students facing significant social, educational, mental, physical or behavioral challenges.

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Those who support teen mothers must manage goals and expectations

Teen mothers are too often caught between conflicting messages that their situation is hopeless and the expectation that they should be handle every obstacle with grace and ease.

The reality, of course, is somewhere deep between.

Meeting before an audience of teachers, administrators and counselors from across the country in a webinar held on Oct. 27, two experts said teen parents who do battle with those expectations need a lot of support to do so.

“These young women have to live through the same 24-hour period that the rest of us do, but they have substantially less in terms of time and money to do so,” said Graduation Alliance principal Deborah O’Brien, who oversees dropout recovery and at-risk student service programs across the United States.

And yet, O’Brien said, society too often tells young mothers that “you can do it all.”

Julian Mangino, the author of Voices of Teen Mothers and ABCs for Mommy, said it is important to tell young parents they can handle all the challenges and pressure associated with their circumstances — but they need to be given short-term goals toward a broader vision of success.

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In the United States, it's harder to rise than to fall

Do you believe in equality?

Not that we are all born equal — of course we’re not. Some are taller. Some are smarter. Some are more attractive. Some have talents and abilities the rest of us can only dream about.

But do you believe our society should give everyone about an equal chance of rising or falling on his or her own merits?

Sure you do. We all do.

But that’s not the world we live in.

A new paper by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, both of the Brookings Institution, includes a rather startling observation. As The Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien summarizes: “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”

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Courtesy of confusion, here are two lessons for evaluating graduation rate data

The graduation rate in Newark, Ohio, is down. On further reflection, though, it’s up — but not as much as school officials first believed.

Confused yet? So are the leaders at Newark City Schools, where the graduation rate, as tabulated by the Ohio Department of Education, dropped 10 percentage points — from 86 to 76 percent — last year, according to the Newark Advocate.  

That defies both regional and national trends. Ohio’s grad rate has climbed steadily upward over recent years as part of a rising tide that has education leaders seriously suggesting the United States might reach a 90 percent national graduation rate by 2020.

So what happened?

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Victory in Victoria: More than 300 out-of-school youth are back

No stone goes unturned. 

That's the guiding principle behind Operation I'm Back, a recovery initiative aimed at young men and women who have left school before earning a diploma in Victoria, Texas.

"Calls are made locally, statewide and nationally in an attempt to speak to the student, parent, relatives, friends, employer or new school personnel," Victoria School District communications director Diane Boyett writes in the Victoria Advocate. "Searches are conducted via the Internet. Visits are made to homes and places of employment during the day and if attempts to locate are unsuccessful, they visit after hours and on weekends."

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