Mentors, individualized graduation plans helped some, but not all, students at an alternative high school

Students at Bryant Adult Alternative High School in Alexandria, Virginia have a dropout rate of about 60 percent. Community members have worked to figure out why that rate is so high, and faculty eventually formed a research group to assess the situation and find ways to lower the dropout rates.

In a paper written by Evguenia Conner and Jan McKee called “Drop-Out Challenges: Pathways to Success,” the two authors analyzed the faculty’s research to see what worked and what didn’t. The group decided to focus on new students, who made up more than half of the school’s population because students can start the program at any time. Bryant also has a lenient attendance policy, allowing students to miss up to 15 consecutive days.

The research focused on three areas:

• Collecting and analyzing statistical data of newly enrolled students, including their demographic information and academic history.

• Analyzing new students’ education values and commitment to earning a high school diploma.

• Mentoring as a means to promote students’ success and reduce the number of students who drop out.

The demographics of Byrant trended heavily toward Hispanic and black students, who comprised 45 and 41 percent of the population respectively. White students made up 7 percent of the population and Asians were 5 percent.

The dropout rates of Hispanic and black students were particularly high — 75 percent and 62 percent respectively.

White and Asian students were relatively lower — 38 and 48 percent — but their numbers did not have much effect on the overall dropout rate because of their small population sizes.

Students who enter the program take assessments in math, reading and writing to determine their skill levels. Scores in reading and math were 63 and 62 percent, respectively, but 18 percent of students in score below 50 percent in reading as do 30 percent of students in math.

GPAs also were low, with the average being a 1.60 on a 4-point scale, with 18 percent of students having a GPA of lower than 1.0.

Upon entrance, students wrote an essay addressing what they wanted to achieve in the program. Many were critical of their previous school performance and hoped the flexibility of the school, which offered online, summer and night classes, would help them work around the challenges they were facing.

The research group decided to link students with mentors. They used a small cohort of students to have mentors and a control group with students of the same age, gender, English-language proficiency, GPA and credits earned, to compare them against.

The mentor sat down with the student, school counselor, and program coordinator to devise an individualized graduation program. They determined how much time it would take a student to complete courses and what type of classroom (online, summer, night or traditional) would work best for that student.

The research group began assessing students in September, and by May, only 60 percent of all students were still on the roll.

Of those students, 10.6 percent graduated in February, 10.6 transferred to another school and 75.6 percent dropped out after missing more than 15 consecutive days.

That dropout rate, which is only of new students, was much higher than the 19.2 percent dropout rate of returning students.

The mentoring program also had mixed results. Those with mentors had a dropout rate of 13 percent compared to the control group’s 61.5 percent, but the authors warned that the small numbers of students in each group make the number statistically unreliable. Also, while the students in both groups matched demographically, many faced different challenges.

The mentoring worked for a student with a chronic illness who had to miss school twice a week for treatments. The mentor was able to arrange for tutoring and free transportation to school. That student graduated.

Another student, though, had a child and worked from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Chronic absenteeism continued to plague her at Bryant, and she eventually dropped out despite having the support and guidance of a mentor who helped her lighten her class load.

“Although mentoring is a valuable tool for helping students adjust, it is not a panacea for those who have not made a commitment to do the hard work and that is needed to complete a high school program,” the authors wrote. “Individual mentors cannot overcome poverty, teenage pregnancy, or the achievement gap.”

The authors also found that the lenient absence policy allowed students to “lose focus, get discouraged, start falling behind, and eventually drop out.”

They concluded that reducing the dropout rate strongly depends “on the efficacy of the wide social establishment and institutions that work to overcome these challenges.”

It’s that reason that we at NoDropouts support an all-hand-on-deck approach to ending the dropout crisis. One person, or even one program alone, cannot address every need of students who face a wide array of challenges. It takes effort on all fronts, from the home to schools to the community at large, to ensure the nation’s students get the best start to their adult lives possible — with a diploma in hand.