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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

As a nation, we're very keen to stem the tide of dropouts from our schools, but we seem oddly cold to the fates of those who have already dropped out. With schools having little incentive to woo their dropouts back into the classroom, students themselves may feel little reason to return.

At least one school district in Texas is breaking that mold, however. The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent District has created a College, Career and Technology (CCT) Academy to steer dropouts -- some as old as 25 -- back onto the path towards graduation. Not only do the students gain the knowledge, skills and course credits they need to graduate, they also gain college credit along the way.

Reaching Out

The district's strategy seems to be working. In the space of two years, the academy has turned more than 500 dropouts into high school graduates.

The key to this work? Stop throwing all students onto the same Procrustean bed and then leaving the rest to chance. The district's superintendent Daniel King made this point succinctly when I spoke with him last summer. "We expect the kid to fit the school, and the school's not bending to fit the kid," he stated.

What does this mean in practical terms? "The school may or may not be welcoming to a 20-year-old when it's got 14-and 15-year-olds," King told me, adding, "He may feel embarrassed he didn't graduate." The academy allows students to work with their peers. As a partnership between the district and the local community college, it also gives former dropouts a shot at college.

Reaching In

The PSJA Independent District is not limiting its efforts to students who have already dropped out. It groups struggling students in the ninth and twelfth grades with teams of teachers whose mission it is to keep these students on a steady course towards graduation.

It also focuses on middle schools and has all but eliminated the dropout problem before ninth grade. And volunteers fan out into the neighborhoods to track down and win back students who have stopped showing up to school. (Read the Edutopia article, "How to End the Drop Out Crisis" for more ideas on keeping kids in school.)

What unites all of this work is the district's drive to forge personal ties with as many students as possible. King told me the story of one student at the CCT Academy who said he was graduating because the superintendent had gone to his home. "I sent a message that he was important," said King.

These personal stories add up. In 2007, the school completion rate hovered at about 80 percent. Now it exceeds 90 percent, which is higher than the state average. That is no mean feat for a district where more than eight in ten students come from low-income families.

Working within The System

But don't expect the district to get full credit for all its efforts. Its work to reclaim students who have already dropped out doesn't win it any points in the federal accountability system. "That's one of the things that maybe discourages schools from getting into this business," King said. "If a kid doesn't make it that fourth year and hangs with you a fifth and a sixth year, the school gets no credit with the federal [Adequate Yearly Progress requirements]."

The strict four-year graduation measure is just one of many policies that can hamstring schools and districts that want to do the right thing. At the Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo Independent School District, though, the needs of students easily trump the pressures of one-size-its-all accountability systems.

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