George Lucas Educational Foundation

Dropout Diplomacy: A Boston Initiative Reaches Out to Truants

The scramble to get kids to return to high school is on.
By Star Lawrence
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It's public education's dirty little secret: Three out of ten students who start high school don't finish it four years later. Among African American and Hispanic teens, on-time graduation rates can be less than 50 percent.

That's why a growing number of groups are rallying to not only prevent high schoolers from leaving but also convince those who have fled to return to the classroom.

In New England, the Boston Private Industry Council is partnering with the city's public school system on the Boston Youth Transitions Project, which is designed to track down high school dropouts and convince them to return. Point men on the project are outreach specialists Marvin Moore and Emmanuel Allen, self-described "street researchers." Both are former dropouts who later returned to finish their education, and both are blunt and realistic with dropouts about the limited economic opportunities for those without a complete education.

"We ask them what they want out of life," Moore says of their initial conversations with the dropouts. "We do not even discuss school."

The economic and social consequences of not completing high school have intensified, and Boston is particularly tough on people with no diploma. A high concentration of jobs in that region require college degrees, and newly arrived immigrants compete for the lower-paying positions. Today, dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed. For those who manage to get a job, though, the pay is low, advancement is limited, and health insurance is seldom available.

Students give many reasons for leaving school -- their classes are not interesting, they're failing, they're not motivated -- but the reasons for dropping out are not always academic. "I dropped out to work," Allen recalls. "I said, 'What is the use of school if there is nothing to eat at home?'"

"They aren't always slackers," Moore adds. "It could be a mother with two kids. We define a dropout simply as someone who is not in school."

Primarily, though, kids leave school for scholastic reasons. In one survey of dropouts completed for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, nearly half of all high school dropouts said their classes were uninteresting. Almost 70 percent reported that they had not felt motivated to work hard. One-third said they had been "failing."

That's a huge motivational problem being addressed by Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. Balfanz helps run the Baltimore Talent Development Secondary School Project, which has helped transform ninety high schools and middle schools around the country, making the atmosphere and curricula more attractive and creating a more productive learning environment. Their primary goals: Keep kids in school, and raise student achievement.

"We concentrate on making school more personalized," Balfanz says. The key to retention, he adds, is a more supportive, participatory, and interactive educational environment. He describes the best school environment as one that is "calm, quiet, and purposeful."

But when students do leave, Moore and Allen are eager to convince them to return and close the gap between aspiration and attainment. In the past year, in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools, Moore and Allen have contacted 1,600 dropouts to begin the tough work of convincing them to return. It was hard from the outset. In many cases, the contact information the school retained is no longer valid. Ultimately, they were able to hook up with only 141 of the former students, and, of those, 81 reenrolled.

Moore and Allen are strong advocates of the former students returning for a high school diploma, as opposed to simply going for a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate. A high school diploma, they say, remains the gold standard for jobs that do not require a college degree.

The pair also arrange other forms of outreach -- partnering with social service and mental-health organizations to assist returning students. Moore and Allen have the option of guiding kids to smaller diploma-granting schools such as the Boston Adult Technical Academy.

Reentering school is just the start of a new beginning. A nineteen-year-old among fifteen-year-olds might decide he or she does not fit, or the factors that prompted a student to drop out may still be obstacles. "Some talk a good game," says Moore. "But, ultimately, the student has to buy in."

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My suggestion for dropout prevention is this. To offer free daycare services run by a few payed adults, and volunteering highschoolers. Also the teen mothers and fathers would not have to pay for the daycare if they worked in the daycare for one class period. That's a fair trade. It allows those who have had a baby to finish high school. I have talked to a lot of teen parents and they want to finish, but they can't afford daycare, and there's no one to watch their kids during the school day.

I also suggest that instead of having 1 counselor in charge of 500 teens, have 1 teacher advisor in charge of 20 teens. This advisor would be someone the teen could really talk to, the advisor would more easily check up on if their failing classes, or if their skipping classes, or having home troubles.

Those are my suggestions. And I'm in high school, so I know.

Yamilette Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think one of the critical aspects to consider is convenience! For many students returning to a building that they were not successful academically is not a draw. They have emotional ties and many are not positive. So take them where they will feel comfortable, like the mall! Our school district will offer, starting this coming fall, an alternative learning environment in our local mall. Using a blend of online learning and small group instruction students will have an opportunity to earn the missing credits as well as recovery credits due to failure of past attempts. Because the mall is in a centralized location, city bus transportation is available. As with many malls, a food court is available for snacks and lunch. We also see the potential for the department stores inside the mall to provide part-time employment opportunities. In order for this to be successful, you need great teachers to guide instruction and counselors to mentor these children as well as the support from leadership (both District-level and community). We know the kids are out there and we want them to come back so they can gain the knowledge necessary for post-secondary education of their choice and re-enter our community well armed.

Laurel Kaae's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Do not underestimate the GED diploma. Just as alternative high schools are an option for students so is the GED testing. The GED diploma will get students into college, employed, or entered into most branches of the military.

If educators are interested in the success of the students then they will promote whichever option is in the best interest of the student. That best interest may be high school, alternative high school, Job Corps, or the GED program. All are good programs and should not be discredited.

Carl Nink's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every year Job Corps helps thousands of young people begin satisfying careers. Find out more about Job Corps,, or or by calling: (800) 733-JOBS or (800) 733-5627.

The education, certified training in a high growth industry, housing, meals, and healthcare are FREE (paid by the US Dept of Labor).

Job Corps students enter with varying levels of academic abilities and progress at their own pace. Many centers offer English as a second language (ESL) classes. Using certified teachers, the program features:
* Attainment of literacy and numeracy
* High school diploma or GED
* Vocational/Career & Technical training in more than 100 occupational areas leading to industry-recognized certification
* Social and Career Success Skills
* Advanced training, including college opportunities

Job Corps provides student transportation to and from home during the winter and summer breaks. Family members may arrange to visit students at the Job Corps center.

As part of the student transition after graduation, staff work to assist students in finding housing, transportation, and childcare for up to 6 months after graduation to make the transition from the program to the world of work easier.

The living allowance (i.e., pay) is based on stay duration (e.g., up to 56 days is $25/pay period or two weeks, 57-112 days is $30/pay period, 113-182 is $40/pay period and 183+ days at $50/pay period).

A transition payment occurs when the student successfully completes a High School Diploma/GED and/or a career and technical certificate. Students receive $250 for HSD/GED, $750 for CTE or $1,200 for completing both.

Job Corps has one of the highest placement rates among the nation's job training programs. For students staying longer than 60 days:
* Over 91 percent obtained jobs, enlisted in the military or enrolled in higher education.
* Of students entering without a diploma, 20,570 earned a High School Diploma or GED during their time in the Job Corps program during the year July 2004 - June 2005.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I view this problem from a much different angle than many other people do. First of all the nation (that means Every state), needs to realize and pass laws that say until you are an adult (18), it is Illegal to drop out of high school. Simply do Not allow it. None of this 16 years for one state, 17 for another, 18 for others. All need the same age--18. On to step #2.

Next comes a "carrot approach". States, businesses, districts and schools need to ALL come together and develop Vocational/Job/Career Training Programs where certain at-risk students are placed. Businesses must be involved because this 'group' is most often the #1 group pushing for educational changes -- many of which are not posititve or helpful to schools, students and districts. They want to 'dictate' to schools, then Let Them help pay for Alternative programs to keep kids in school. Simple as that. The goal for many of these career programs would be a real Certificate for that job field so that the student could actually find and get a good paying job.
This requires from the "State Educational bureaucracy and from the States' Legislative bodies" a new and different way of approaching educating students. Forget this "all students are the same/learn the same/should be taught the same" garbage. At-risk/drop-out students Are Different and should be treated differently in order to get them to be able to succeed in life. Forget the current "college for everyone" mania. College was never meant for every single person nor should it be.

Bottom line is this: these students AND parents should be given a choice. Want to drop-out of school? Your choices are these: stay in until 18, drop-out of the current type of school you are in and enroll in a job/career training program, or be automatically enrolled in a Boot-Camp School run by former Military servicemen/women. That's it! Don't buy into the "poor boy/girl" syndrome, don't allow it to happen, don't be 'reactive', but be proactive and force the hand of these students and parents. Say to them, you have these 3 choices---choose one now.

Respectfully Submitted,

Eric Yeutter

Jim Wade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just started working as a temporary special education teacher with SIA Tech in Phoenix. You make some very good points. In the short time I have been here I have seen the accomplishments these students, who were essentially given up on in the regular high school, have made.

Stuben's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Perhaps we should try what they're doing for poor families in Brazil. According to "YES Magazine", Issue 42, Summer 2007, Brazil has begun distributing a cash payment to poor families who keep their children in school. After all, isn't it a family's responsibility to do this? Why not reward those who take that responsibility?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

can you drop out of middle school, in the eight grade? do you have to sign papers and all that, like highschool? or do you have to wait till you're 16 to drop out?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Bill Betzen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the year since the above posting we have studied this years enrollment numbers at the two formerly high-dropout-rate high schools that Archive Project students have been attending now for three years. Great progress is happening! These high schools appear to be on their way to graduate a class with the highest graduation rate in over a decade! The 10th grade enrollment numbers are now the highest in over 10 years while at the same time 9th grade numbers are going down. It appears the normal 9th grade "bubble," as students repeat the 9th grade, may be getting smaller, hopefully due to more positive, goal-centered motivation due to the Archive Project. The 10th grade enrollment loss from 9th grade has gone from an average of over 60% at these two high schools to 71% this past year, 7% over the Dallas ISD average. Look at spreadsheets and bar charts at that document this apparent progress. It is looking very positive.
Bill Betzen
Dallas, Texas

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