Photo credit: Andy Dean

With so many negative stories in the media lately about our nation’s youth—from bullying to school violence to drug and alcohol abuse—it can be a relief to hear about efforts being made to prevent youth from engaging in behaviors that can put their future at risk.

I recently saw a PBS NewsHour segment about how 44 middle and high schools (and counting!) across the country are reducing dropout rates and increasing academic achievement—setting more and more students on a path to success. 

Diplomas Now—an evidence-based schoolwide turn-around model, built on research by John Hopkins University—focuses on training school staff to recognize the early warning signs of dropping out. What I found most remarkable is that the program gives at-risk students strong social support by connecting them with young adult volunteers from City Year who serve full-time in Diplomas Now schools.

The Enthusiastic Volunteers

Volunteers, or “corps” members, interact daily with students in halls and classrooms. They greet students every day as they enter the school by applauding and verbally encouraging them; in the classroom, they collaborate with teachers to find ways to keep kids focused and engaged during lessons. Volunteers also serve as mentors for students who are identified as particularly at risk of dropping out.

“By having this corps member who is a near peer, who has just graduated college, [who] knows your music but is seen as being the captain to the whole classroom—getting attention from that person is seen like, Wow, I'm getting attention from the cool person. You now seek it out. So that sort of flips that dynamic, that getting extra attention is now good, not bad,” explains Robert Balfanz, a leading expert on dropout prevention whose research prompted the development of Diplomas Now.

Partnerships with other organizations, such as Communities in Schools—who link public schools with community agencies, businesses, and health care providers—make it possible for the schools to bring in additional resources, like social workers, to help meet the needs of students most at risk.

The “Numbers” Research

Because research shows that students who attend sixth through tenth grade “on time and on track” have much higher graduation rates than those who don’t, Diplomas Now focuses on students who are entering middle or high school, generally in the sixth and ninth grades.

These transition years can present additional challenges that if left unaddressed may cause students to become distracted from academics, act out, and skip classes—putting them at risk of becoming truant and disconnected from school. (If you’re curious about the intersection of school and the developing adolescent brain, check out this Psychology Today article I found.)

Early Indicators of Dropping Out

Truancy is one of the leading indicators. But before a student becomes truant, there are many early warning signs that teachers, volunteers, and school staff can learn to recognize. The big three, as Balfanz’s research indicates, are what can be referred to as the “ABC’s of Dropout Prevention”:

  • Attendance: Get students to school, and on time.
    Chronic absenteeism—missing 10 percent or more of school—is considered one of the strongest predictors of dropping out. (Did you see our blog post about the hidden threat of chronic absenteeism?) To increase attendance, boosting student engagement is key. Using school-based mentors, expanding after-school activities, and engaging parents are just a few approaches that schools can employ. The National Center for School Engagement, one of our technical partners, has created a brief that includes 21 Strategies to Engage Students in School.
  • Behavior: Reduce the number of negative acts of behavior.
    Students who commit three or more behavioral infractions are at high risk of dropping out. Adopting a supportive school discipline approach that creates a positive school climate for all students and connects at-risk students with the supports they need to address their behavior issues can be a step in the right direction. Some schools, for instance, have seen success with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). 
  • Course performance: Increase success in English and math courses.
    A study looking at high dropout rates in Philadelphia schools found that poor performance in English and math, in particular, correlate with dropping out. Like the A and the B of the ABC’s, there are many different approaches to supporting students in this area, depending on their needs and the available resources. A former Safe Schools/Healthy Students site, San Diego County Schools, attributed its recent increase in English and math scores to smaller class sizes, involving the community in decision making, and tailoring strategies to meet individual school’s needs

Your Turn

Do you believe that there are other major early indicators of dropping out? If so, what are they and how is your community addressing this complex issue? Please leave your comments below.*

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Photo credit: Andy Dean