Saturday, April 28, 2012

Resource: High School Dropouts

1.3 million students drop out of school each year.  American business needs 97 million skilled workers to fill much needed jobs in the economy, yet only 45 million workers currently possess those skills (source: www.americangraduate.org).  I've written about the employment and skills quandary in a previous post.  If you look around the country, you find some places have really made strides and improvements in helping guide more students to graduation, and there are other places that still struggle a great deal.

American Graduate is an organization that has dedicated itself to investigating why students drop out of school--what are the risk factors and warning signs?  Further, they have also worked to identify solutions and strategies that schools, educators, and families can use to help prevent kids from leaving school without a diploma or a GED.  American Graduate has partnered with local organizations in states and cities across the U.S. as a means of gathering information about the issue locally as well as getting the word out about the problem and ways to find solutions.  For example, here in the Washington D.C. metro area, they partnered with a local NPR radio station, WAMU, to produce a nine-part radio series that looked at the high-school dropout crisis in this area.  Kavitha Cardoza, a reporter at the station, examines the issues from a local point of view, but the strength of this series is that I believe it is applicable anywhere.  It identifies the main risk factors for dropping out, the long term effects of students leaving school without a diploma or certificate, and what some communities have done to try to either prevent dropping out or to give students a second chance:
  • Breaking the Cycle When Dropping Out Runs in the Family:  This episode examines how dropping out can be seen from generation-to-generation (remember your Bowen theory and genograms), and the impact this has on families over time.  Further, it discusses risk factors such as pregnancy and students with learning disabilities.  One part that I found interesting was how connected one of the subjects felt to a former teacher, and how that connection made such a difference in her ability to learn during that particular school year.
  • How Many Students Really Graduate from High School?:  As most of us have known for a while, graduation rate calculations have varied widely from state-to-state, with some involving sampling and self-reporting, some that include both diplomas and GED's, and some that only pull numbers from those in the 12th grade, leaving out any students that may have dropped out before then.  There is now a new method for all states to use in calculating graduation rates, the adjusted graduation cohort rate, which will follow and track all students who enter the 9th grade.  Further, many states are using databases to determine which subgroups of students are most at-risk for dropping out.
  • Why Kids Drop Out: Identifying the Early Warning Signs: There are three large warning signs that are discussed--attendance, behavior, and grades/academic performance.  When one of these is an issue for a student, it can be a risk factor, but when two or three are an issue, that student may be in real danger.  School policies that involve the parents/guardians, connecting abstract coursework to the real world, and having teachers that regularly encourage students are discussed as antidotes.
  • Graduation Rates Increase Around the Globe as U.S. Plateaus:  In 2009, the U.S. ranked 21 out of 26 countries with regards to their graduation rate.  In the past, the U.S. used to rank first.  Some believe that we have fallen because of a stronger emphasis on the social nature of schools--the clubs, the sports, and prom.  Others believe that we have not become weaker, but that other countries have worked hard to improve their graduation rates, and offer multiple paths to a diploma, such as through vocational education, something that U.S. education has shied away from because of the stigma associated with "tracking" students.  In developing countries, graduation rates are on the rise because education is seen as transformative--it can pull people out of poverty and change lives.
  • Battling Homelessness, Crime on the Path to Graduation:  Two stories are presented.  In one, a student who has been homeless most of his life discusses his struggles and how he has overcome them and remained focused on school.  In the other, an older student who was in jail for three years for a felony conviction regains academic focus at an alternative school following his release.
  • In Experimental School, Tight-Knit Community Helps Students Succeed:  At the Baltimore Talent Development High School, students graduate at a 78% rate within five years, which is higher than the school district's average and much higher than neighboring schools.  This is done by focusing on attendance, behavior, and coursework.  Students have daily competitions between the grade levels for attendance, and the school environment is highly structured in order to minimize down time and distractions, everything from uniforms to class schedules built on the concept of "teaming," where students have classes with the same students and teachers all day long.  The idea is that if students are not motivated themselves to succeed, the staff and their peers can help to keep them moving forward.
  • Scaling Up Solutions to the Dropout Problem:  This installment tackles the question, "can you identify and then transfer successful components from one program into others?"  Diplomas Now has done this, showing early success in a school and then expanding into other programs.  Key components of their program involve smaller groups of students, careful monitoring, developing relationships with kids, and a high staff-to-student ratio.  The strong academic program is the first line of defense.  Next, the program involves City Year volunteers who help to keep track of students attendance, behavior, and grades and then, through staffing meetings, design interventions if the child needs support.  Finally, for those students with needs that exceed what can be provided within the walls of the school, there is a social worker who helps to connect them to outside resources.
  • Bridging the Gap Between Home and School: Attendance officers as well as school and community social services reach out to connect parents to what is going on in their children's lives.  Unexcused absences are not the only issue; excused absences are also a reason for concern.  Students will sometimes be excused in order to take care of siblings or to take parents grocery shopping or to the doctor.  By meeting with parents face-to-face and building relationships with them early, the schools try to lessen the "value-disconnect" and help bring families on board with the importance of education.
  • The Impact of the High School Dropout Crisis: Alternative schools and second-chance programs allow dropouts to give high-school another try.  Students can find success at programs that have on-the-job training and that tie education to real-world experience.  Students may attend programs that end in a GED, or some will go through schools that offer mentoring, accelerated credit recovery programs, and more convenient hours.  These programs are important, as those who never get a high-school diploma have less earnings and spending potential, are less likely to vote, less likely to volunteer, are at a higher risk for ending up in the justice system, and are more likely to have health issues.  More important, however, is the loss of human potential.
How can you, as a school counselor, take the ideas and concepts discussed in this series and apply them to your individual situation?
  • Use data to identify those students who may be at risk, as early as possible.  If I think about my work with my own students, the ABC acronym (attendance, behavior, course performance) is exactly what I use to help me determine who needs additional supports and interventions in order to keep them in school.  Students who consistently miss school, either for excused or unexcused absences, are not getting the instruction they need nor are they engaging in the school community.  Students who are constantly having behavior issues, getting suspended or thrown out of class, are also not getting the instruction they need.  Students who are not performing well academically are not amassing the skills and credits they need for graduation, falling further and further behind, becoming frustrated and more disengaged from education.  If you have a student who is struggling with all three, no matter if they are in elementary school or a junior in high-school, they are at an extremely high-risk for dropping out of school at some point.  
  • Use your counseling skills to help figure out what is behind those risk factors.  Students may be missing school, but is it because they hate school and are disengaged from the process, or is it because they are expected to help take care of siblings, parents, or other family members?  Students may be acting out in class, but is it because they are responding to bullying and harassment because of their LGBT status or is it because they are trying to take attention away from the fact that they do not understand basic math, making Algebra 1 impossible?  Their grades may be low, but is that because they are bored in class, ace every test, and do absolutely no homework, or is it because there may be an unidentified learning disability or other impediment?  As school counselors, we are specifically trained to ask the questions that will help us to get the information we need to truly begin to assist the student.
  • It takes a village.  Once you have identified a student or a group of students who are struggling with one or all three of the ABC's and gotten some ideas as to what may be the background behind their struggles, gather the troops together.  The more people who are involved in assisting the student or students, the better.  Ask the parents to come in and meet with you, all the teachers, the administrator, the student, and any other personnel or community members that might be relevant or helpful.  For each individual student, if you are able to develop a plan with everyone present, you are much more likely to have consistency.  Further, it send a pretty clear message to the student that everyone at that table cares and wants the student to do well.  For groups, get other staff and community members to assist you in running a group for those who struggle with attendance, setting up an after-school or even during-school tutoring session, or partnering with someone in the community to work on anger-management and conflict-resolution skills.
  • Know your resources.  Something that is pretty clear in the radio series is that many school systems have developed alternative programs to help students graduate.  In my own school district, there are multiple programs to help students graduate, from standards-based online coursework to programs that are part vocational, part academic.  We have GED prep-programs that incorporate GED prep, job skills, and career readiness.  Some area school systems have created schools-within-schools to help address at-risk problems like attendance and low grades, developing programs which are small and compact in nature so that students move together with the same students and teachers.  In addition to seeing what options might be available in your school system, gather additional community supports--is there low-cost or free family counseling?  Is there an after-school community resource center for kids?  Do you have a contact or two in social-services to assist with other family needs like housing, medical concerns, or child-care?  Again, you cannot possibly do it all, but if you have a bank of resources in your head (or on your computer), you can more easily help to solve some of the problems that are preventing the student from being successful.
  • Build relationships.  This was pretty clear in the series, time and time again.  Students need someone within their buildings to connect to.  You can be that person.  More than this, though, you can help to facilitate relationship building between the student and their teachers, the teachers and the parent, the parent and the school.  The more people in this situation that feel comfortable talking to each other and problem solving, the better that will be for the student and the possible outcome.
  • Follow-up.  Keep tabs on the student, meeting with them regularly.  Check in with the parent, especially around grade time or any time an attendance or discipline issue comes to light.  Check in with the teachers to see how things are progressing and if they need any assistance from you.  This way you are able to head possible problems off at the pass plus you are continuing to foster and nurture your relationships with the community of support you have helped to build around this student.
The American Graduate website has additional resources, including report cards by state on the dropout situation to include statistics on indicators, dropouts, dropout factories (schools with fewer than 60% of students graduating),  and the economic implications of students dropping out.  Further, it has reports on the student, teacher/principal, and parent perspectives on what causes students to dropout as well as what solutions each group offers.  My one concern that I've discussed before is that school counselors are left out of the discussion in American Graduate.  The parents, teacher, principals, and students surveyed offer solutions such as stronger relationships between the schools and families, between the students and their teachers, more access to support staff (implying school counselors, perhaps?), more collaboration between all the parties involved, and stronger early-warning systems (source: www.americangraduate.org).  It seems to me that the person in the building most able to have a global perspective on a student (academic, personal/family, career aspirations) is the school counselor.  It seems to me the person in the building most able to examine data to identify early warning signs is the school counselor.  It seems to me that the person in the building most able to facilitate the collaboration and relationship building between the teachers, student, family, school personnel, and district/community resources is the school counselor.  We can have a strong impact on the dropout rate in this country if we are able to identify students early, determine what is behind the risk factors, and then develop and follow through with a collaborative plan to see that student through to graduation.

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