George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

The title "Steering student dropouts back to school" is a title that will cover all dropout prevention work. The dropout process starts as students are loosing their focus on school. All dropout prevention work involves redricting dropouts back to school.

You appear to want to focus on older dropouts who have already left school physically as well as mentally. That certainly is needed. My efforts focus on middle school students who are loosing their focus on school and thereby laying the foundation that will push them to dropping out before graduation.

Our goal is to focus our students onto their own futures, their own story, where they have been and where they hope to go. It involves several components in our middle school:

1) Two letters students write to themselves in middle school about their history and their plans and goals for the future. The first letter is written as they enter middle school and the second is written the last month before they leave middle school for high school. They have pulled the first letter from the School Archive and use it to write the second letter.

2) Parents are also invited to write two letters to their child with their own dreams for their child. One letter is written to go with the first letter their child writes and then a second is to go with the last letter their child writes before going to high school. They second letter also has a 10-year goal focus.

3) The letters are stored in a very visible 500-pound vault bolted to the floor in the school lobby. It is the School Archive with 10 shelves installed inside for 10 years worth of letters. It should be under spotlights so it is quickly noticed by all visitors and passed by all students several times each day.

4) A 10-year class reunion plan is started at which students will see each other again and open the School Archive for their letters. They will also be invited to speak with then current 8th grade students about their recommendations for success. They are warned to be prepared for questions from these decade younger students such as "What would you do differently if you were 13 again?"

5) An Archiving Day event is planned for the day students each place their letters into the School Archive where they stay for the next 10 years. They pose with their entire Language Arts class and teacher holding their envelopes with their letters and their parents letters inside. The Language Arts Class is the class where the letters are written. The next day they each receive two copies of that photo with details on the back of each photo about their reunion and the planned "Recommendations for Success" talks. One photo is for their parents to keep in safe keeping and the other is for them. It is usually quickly signed by classmates.

This project, started in 2005, sent students to two of the formerly highest dropout rate schools in Dallas. Those dropout rates have gone down and the Gradution Class of 2009 at both schools was the largest in 10+ years!

The 11th and 12th grade enrollment at all 32 Dallas ISD high schools has never been higher. It is now over 5% higher than it was in the 2005/2006 school year. This was an increase of 758 students. Of that increase, 417, or 55%, of the students are from the two high schools who have recieved almost all the School Archive Project students! Something positive is definitely happening by focusing students onto their own futures.

See more details and statistics at The project spread to four more DISD schools this year.

Claus von Zastrow's picture

Thank you for your very inspiring and suggestive story. It's impossible to overstate the importance of student motivation, and you offer a very compelling account of what's been going on already at middle school, which is too often the forgotten step-child in discussions of drop-out prevention. I'd love to learn more.

I don't mean to suggest in my blog posting that our focus should be exclusively or even mainly on students who have already dropped out. The PSJA Independent School District seeks to address the dropout problem from all directions, with a strong focus on middle school.

My bigger concern is to ensure that policies don't actually create disincentives for schools to focus on students who may very well not graduate in four years. PSJA does work for which it receives little official credit, because they know it's the right thing to do.

Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

You are certainly welcome Claus. I've never had more fun in 40+ years of work with Dallas youth than I am having now with this future-focused project. It is very popular with students. The pensive looks on their faces as you talk about it are fascinating. You have their attention! The 500-pound vault, bolted to the school lobby floor, also gets their attention.

The fact that you place your most valuable possessions in such a vault helps send a strong message as students plan to personally place their plans for the future inside the vault for the next decade. The future becomes real, and valuable enough to work for now!

Other teachers and principals have seen this future connection with the Archive Project. Four more 500-pound vaults were bolted to the floors in four more schools in Dallas ISD this past summer. In the next few years more data will be collected so that, if the progress we have seen so far spreads to these additional Archive Project schools, the number of vaults being installed will continue growing.

The Dallas ISD Class of 2009 only received 6,383 diplomas for a class that in 2005/2006 had a total enrollment of 14,680 students in the 9th grade. That 6,383 number represents 43.5% of the 14,680 9th grade enrollment. We have a long way to go.

I love the philosophy you show as you write: [quote]My bigger concern is to ensure that policies don't actually create disincentives for schools to focus on students who may very well not graduate in four years. PSJA does work for which it receives little official credit, because they know it's the right thing to do.[/quote]

All teachers must actively work to make certain no child is left behind. Sadly the rigid guidelines and mandated testing routines and pressure on teachers appears to increase such dangers.

Have you read the recent book and other writing by Dr. Diane Ravitch? With such leadership and discussion we may be heading toward a more well researched and accountable educational revolution.

PJR's picture
ELL Teacher

How did you fund the 500 pound vaults?
Were there other expenses involved?
This sounds like an outstanding plan, but with current budget restraints I am wondering how to fund it.

Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

PJR, The funding we received was found the old fashioned way. We asked folks for money, they liked the idea, and they gave money.

The first vault was donated by the local Lowe's Home Improvement. Sadly Lowe's did not handle those same vaults when I went back to get more. We found a local gun-vault store and the owner liked our idea. He agreed to install what is about a $1,300 vault for a total cost of $1,100. This price was good for the four vaults we installed last summer. The new 500+ pound vaults are 40% larger than that original 350-pound vault. More room inside the vault will be helpful since letters from parents are now being added to the envelope each child places in the vault.

It was our opinion that placing the vaults out in the open would be better than the expense and time taken with the first vault to build and place it inside a locked closet with a clear Plexiglas door. The more visible the better. The last four larger vaults were simply bolted to the floor out in the open area of the school lobby. Thus there is much less expense unless the school decides that they also want a spotlight on the vault to brighten up the area and the focus on the vault. That is recommended.

On Archiving Day we have had our children at the first school to simply pose in front of the vault for a photo holding their letters with their teacher. After the photo they line up and place the letter inside the vault where it stays until their 10-year class reunion. For this reason you may want to position the vault so that such posing of students in front of it for such a photo is easy to do.

I had considered going to the PTA for funding until a large donation was received that is allowing for $1,500 grants to any DISD school starting an Archive Project. Once the principal emails the Dallas Educational Foundation that they want to start the project, $1,500 is reserved for reimbursement of expenses related to the project. The Foundation directly paid for the vaults last summer. Now as the other expenses are covered anyone covering those expenses initially can be reimbursed by the Foundation as long as the principal approves it, up to the $1,500 total.

We have enough in that fund to install 5 more vaults in DISD schools. Once the project is that well known I am certain that more donations will be easy to secure.

As I understand it, compared to other dropout prevention projects, once you get the vault installed, the annual expenses are very small. They are usually less than $2 per student who is archiving their letter. Normal dropout prevention projects are much more expensive.

John's picture

I think it would be a fun idea to display one letter per day at the vault. Either by blocking out the name or having students sign a waiver when they hand in the letters if they choose. Every day there will be new inspiration on display.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

It takes huge courage to drop out of the school system, and yet it's a choice that's being made by increasing numbers of students. Students who drop out of the system are telling us something about how the system needs to be more inclusive.

So I suggest that we take a moment to say a big "thanks" to these so-called 'drop outs' and realise that they are a vital source of inspiration for what needs to change.

We can read the results of 'dropouts' inspiration even in the earlier replies to this posting, for example "Something positive is definitely happening by focusing students onto their own futures".

Without 'dropouts' signalling that there was something wrong, we might have been less aware of the need to make changes. Students who are successful within the system probably won't challenge it. Success does not give much support to the development of the system.

And now that we know that changes are needed, it seems wholly reasonable to make changes, such as focusing on future. And there are many ways to guide students to focus on their own futures.

So, let's give a big thanks to the 'dropouts' for the heads up.

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