George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Report on Dropout Rates: Who's Missing from Graduation Stages?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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With cap-and-gown season in full swing, graduates are getting life advice from all corners. President Obama recently encouraged Morehouse College graduates to "work harder and dream bigger." Comedian Stephen Colbert turned momentarily serious at the University of Virginia, challenging grads to "decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want."

As similar celebrations play out on America's high school stages in the coming days, let's not forget about the missing faces. Some 1.3 million students won't graduate from high school on time this year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The national graduation rate of 69 percent drops below 60 percent for minority students, eroding their opportunities for a lifetime.

Yet there's reason for cautious optimism that those rates are improving. As Building a Grad Nation 2013 Annual Update reports: "For the first time the nation is on track to meet the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020 -- if the pace of improvement from 2006 to 2010 is sustained over the next 10 years."

Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, a national expert on the dropout crisis, has shown that the process of dropping out begins long before a student reaches high school. Especially for children attending high-poverty schools, a combination of poor attendance, behavior challenges, and academic struggles by sixth grade will increase the odds of not completing high school. The good news is, intervention can make a difference -- if it starts early enough. Learn more about Banfanz's research in the Frontline program, "The Middle School Moment."

Responding Earlier

The Class of 2020 is just wrapping up the fifth grade. What will help increase their odds of success through high school?

There's no shortage of promising national programs and local initiatives, many of which take an early- warning approach to intervene sooner. Some of the most successful programs underscore the importance of community organizations working alongside schools to provide students with wraparound supports. Here are just a few examples:

In 2007, one in three students in Shelbyville, Indiana, didn't complete high school. By 2011, the graduation rate had soared to 90 percent, despite increasing poverty in the community. What changed? According to Building a Grad Nation, Shelbyville has adopted an early-warning system that tracks student data from pre-K through high school, and then provides a range of supports and options for students who are struggling. More personalized learning and positive school culture also contribute to student success, along with "an unrelenting belief in the abilities of all students to make it."

Communities in Schools is a national network working to improve graduation rates by partnering with schools facing the greatest challenges. CIS brings a public health approach to turning around the country's so-called "dropout factories." It combines prevention -- keeping the whole school healthier -- with intensive intervention to bring individualized case management to students most at risk of dropping out. By leveraging existing community resources, CIS is able to achieve life-changing results at an average cost of $200 per student per year. Read more about the evidence-based CIS model in "Keeping Kids in School."

Self Enhancement Inc., also highlighted in Building a Grad Nation, points to a graduation rate of 97 percent among youth served at its high-poverty partner schools. The nonprofit program (which happens to be based in my hometown of Portland, Oregon) starts working with children as early as second grade, providing everything from academic help to family services. Participants are matched with a coordinator who knows them personally and is available 24/7 to help them succeed. Summer and after-school programming adds enrichment, reinforcing the SEI motto: Life has options. Watch a TEDx talk by SEI founder Tony Hopson.

In a different way of thinking about addressing the dropout crisis, Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski of Big Picture Schools suggest connecting students with the world outside the classroom as a better way to foster success inside school. In Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates, they explain why internships, travel, service learning, and other real-world experiences give students more reason to care about what they are learning and why it matters.

What is your community doing to make sure all students are prepared to graduate from high school? Please share your suggestions in the comments.

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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I read with interest the examples of community organizations working with school systems to improve effective learning for most students. I was heartened to see that they are local efforts - a far cry from the mandated broad picture programs so plentiful from politicians and policy people in government.

I have been developing concepts for yet another approach, one I've been calling Local Education Communities or LECs. I was fortunate to have been asked by Peter DeWitt to write a guest posting for his Education Week "Finding Common Ground" blog about this concept ( I invite any and all readers of this blog to check out my thoughts. As I continue to explore opportunities to facilitate a LEC effort, I welcome any continued dialogue and feedback anyone might wish to provide.

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

See mostly I have heard that collage dropouts are the real sucessful people they become truly big ones , and there is no problem even if you are a drop until you earn a lot of money legally , and live a wonderful life.

CityYearBoston's picture

City Year works to support students who are at risk for going off-track to graduation. We serve in classrooms as near-peer tutors and mentors to help students improve their attendance, behavior and coursework.

Lorraine Decker's picture
Lorraine Decker
President of Financial Mentors of America with Game of Real Life

Personal challenges (like having to work to support a family) and poor academic performance are clearly reasons why students drop out of high school. But so is the reason that they do not find education relevant.
To counter this belief, we have students step into their future, select careers based on their interests, explore possible standards of living and the formal education necessary to master these careers.
This all occurs in a 120-hour Game of Real Life course with a 20-hour experiential game, where students interview for jobs and are trained by hundreds of volunteers, then "age" from 19 to 26 while working, paying bills, filing tax returns, buying homes, cars, insurance, paying for college and making real life decisions.
Since 2007, 100% of GAME grads have graduated from high school with 98% enrolled in college.
This may not be the answer for every teen, but at least GAME grads learn what is possible and they develop a plan for achieving their future.

KWill's picture
High School CTE

At the school where I teach, we are focusing on building community among the students by implementing Eagle Time. Eagle Time is built into our schedule twice a week. Students meet with their Eagle groups in an effort to promote support, encouragement, study help, a time to get caught up, and for seniors to meet with their culminating project advisors. Eagle groups are diverse among age, academic level, ethnicity, and free and reduced lunch.

Eagle time is being implemented for the first time this year, but so far it has given me an opportunity to get to know some new students and meet with them one on one to look at grades and missing work. The students have an opportunity to take initiative for obtaining their missing work, communicating a plan for improving their grade, and owning up to their grades, good or bad. I think it is a step in the right direction of raising our graduation rates from 71%. We'll see what the numbers show by the end of the school year.

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