Imagine 10 freshmen students sitting in a classroom. Four years later, only seven of those freshmen will graduate high school. That’s the reality of U.S. graduation rates — about 30 percent of students walk away from school each year without a diploma.
And leaving our high schoolers unprepared for life as adults simply doesn’t work for those students, their families and communities and our society as a whole.
We’ve learned a lot during more than 35 years of working with at-risk students. Here are some of my observations.
Sapna Iyer, a high school English teacher at SIATech in San Diego, is making a difference in the lives of dropouts that have returned to school.
And her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.
Iyer recently was chosen as one of four finalists for the "Most Hopeful Teacher in America" award.
Iyer was the only high school teacher chosen as a finalist — and the only dropout recovery teacher.
According to Gallup, Iyer has "demonstrated a unique capacity for changing lives by believing that students can have a better future and by giving them what they need to make it so."
There’s been a lot of publicity surrounding high school “dropout” David Karp, the 26-year-old founder of Tumblr — and the world’s most recent multimillionaire after selling his business to Yahoo.
Newspapers around the country have published headlines, like “High School Dropout Joins Millionaires Club.”
That’s true, but it’s also quite misleading. Let’s talk about the facts.
By all accounts, Karp was an extremely smart kid. He was so smart, in fact, that his mother encouraged him to leave traditional school to be homeschooled. During this time, Karp began working for a small entrepreneurial start-up and was able to use the money he made when that company sold to see Tumblr. All along, he was supported by his parents and a network of professional adults who helped him make good business decisions.
How can we best keep students in school?
This is a hard question to answer, as it depends on each individual student. But on the path to success, three things are constant: a desire from individual students, a focus on success and the stability of others.
How do we create desire? By engaging needs. Individual students have different needs that must be met before they can be focused on their academic obligations. If students are going to overcome these challenges they will need to have the confidence and desire to learn and focus and overcome the roadblocks they encounter — and that comes from practice.
For Joseph Bellard, the NoDropouts program was a second chance to finish high school and earn a diploma. Bellard dropped out in 2011 and became more focused on paying bills and living than going to school. But, Bellard knew he needed to earn his diploma, and now he’s one of the 87 students participating in the NoDropouts program Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish School District.
According to Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper, nearly one in three students in the district is currently failing to graduate — and the NoDropouts program is one of several “out of the box” efforts focused on changing that. The district also offers its own online and classroom program options for students still in school to prevent them from dropping out.
The Moreno Valley Unified School District administrators are showing their dedication to increasing graduation rates by developing new programs for their students.
The school district is now planning to implement an online school that will combine independent study with required student-teacher meetings. Enrollment in the program will be limited to juniors, seniors and fifth-year students.
Independent Study programs work for some students but do not provide enough support for all students, according to assistant superintendent Martinrex Kedziora, who was hired by Superintendent Judy White after she took over the district in 2011.
The district’s on-time graduation rate has improved from 65.7 percent in 2010 to 74.8 percent in 2012, but it’s still second lowest in Riverside County. However, the improvement is attributed to numerous efforts. The district recognizes that a single program won’t work for every at-risk student, so leaders have worked to offer electives, manage records better and mentor.
Many dropout prevention initiatives are attempts to rescue, rehabilitate or revive students who have fallen behind in their studies after a few years in high school.
But the biggest impact, according to researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, comes from a focus on the transition from middle school to high school.
A student’s freshman year is, after all, a key predictor of the likelihood of a high school student dropping out. If a student experiences low grades, a lack of course credit or poor attendance, they are more likely to be off track for graduation, and likely to drop out of school in 10th grade. In order to protect those at-risk adolescents, educators need to recognize how to keep a student on track during their freshman year of high school.
That’s why Jennifer S. Cohen and Becky A. Smerdon argue in their research article, “Tightening the Dropout Tourniquet: Easing the Transition from Middle School to High School,” that effective dropout prevention initiatives should include components that focus specifically on the ninth grade.
When Daniel P. King became superintendent of the 32,000-student Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District he leads in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the district’s three high schools had been singled out as "dropout factories" in a seminal national report, 23 high school science teachers had resigned, gangs activity was on the rise and attendance was dropping.
The year was 2007, and the district was in crisis.
The graduation rate of the 2006-07 school year was 62 percent, far below Texas' statewide average of 77 percent.
Five years later, the dropout rate has been cut by nearly 90 percent. The district's graduation rate is now 88 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than Texas’ statewide average. And about 25 percent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo's high school students were enrolled in at least one course that could earn them credit for college.
Something clicked when I turned 30.
At that point, I had been away from school for almost 14 years. Since my mid-20s, I’d been tending bar or waiting tables — and that wasn’t bad work, but I couldn’t imagine doing it for the rest of my life.
I knew it was time to make a decision, but I was scared. I hadn’t done anything else for so long that I felt my options were limited — and when I thought about going back to school, I could only remember high school as something I couldn’t wait to get away from.