As education leaders align their programs with the goals set forth by Education Secretary Arne Duncan under the Obama administration, a major point of emphasis is turning around underperforming schools and stemming the nation’s dropout rate.

The proposed 2010 federal budget has marked $50 million for dropout prevention work, and the federal stimulus package adds another $3.5 billion to help turn around low-performing schools. How this money is spent could be influenced by a new report from the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) that investigates the links among students who are at risk for dropping out, their families, and the communities where they live.

With only 60 to 70 percent of students graduating from high school nationally, the report, called "Partners in Prevention: The Role of School Community Partnerships in Dropout Prevention," holds that schools will reach struggling students effectively only if educators implement comprehensive dropout prevention plans that include strong school-community partnerships.

Developing partnerships with a range of individuals and organizations in the community is a critical step in dropout prevention for schools of all sizes, said NASBE Executive Director Brenda Welburn.

The report’s recommendations include:

• Promote community partnerships to encourage student retention.
• Develop a comprehensive student data system that can help identify potential dropouts.
• Deliver the needed training to schools and districts to help them foster effective partnerships and dropout prevention plans.
• Create multiple pathways to graduation.

States can use expanded learning opportunities (ELOs), such as after-school, summer learning, extended day, and extended year programs, to reduce student dropout rates, according to a new issue brief from the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). 
 
"Reducing Dropout Rates through Expanded Learning Opportunities" recommends that states identify likely dropouts early and provide targeted intervention through ELOs, increase access to ELOs for students at risk of dropping out, and establish statewide systems to ensure ELOs are effective and are tied to dropout-reduction goals.
 
Governors across the country are actively working to implement policies and practices to deal with the "alarming rate" at which students are dropping out of school, said NGA Center Director John Thomasian.

"This is a particularly important task during difficult economic times. The steps outlined in this issue brief supplement other strategic state efforts to curb student dropout by using extending learning opportunities to support academic rigor, boost student engagement, and provide students with supportive relationships that can lead to high graduation rates," Thomasian added.
 
The NGA Center also recently issued "Achieving Graduation for All: A Governor’s Guide to Dropout Prevention and Recovery," which provides a comprehensive action plan for states to curb dropout rates, help youth succeed, and strengthen state economies.

Despite a tough fiscal environment and strained school budgets, district leaders need to solve the dropout problem "by enacting policies that work toward 100 percent high school graduation," said Colorado Governor Bill Ritter Jr., chair of the NGA’s Education, Early Childhood, and Workforce Committee.

Recommendations include promoting high school graduation for all, targeting youth who are at risk of dropping out, reengaging youth who have dropped out of school, and providing rigorous, relevant options for earning a high school diploma.

The report’s recommendations will be put into practice through the NGA Center’s State Strategies to Achieve Graduation for All initiative. States are eligible to apply for the year-long initiative, which will give grants and technical assistance to teams in up to six states to develop state policies and practices that lead to an increase in high school graduates.

A few states, including Louisiana, are highlighted in the report for their exemplary dropout prevention actions and policies.

Among the Louisiana efforts cited in the NGA report is the state’s inclusion of graduation measurement in its accountability program. The NGA study recommends that graduation rates should not just be included in state accountability systems, but that the measurements should be heavily weighted.

"Louisiana is a leading state in this area," the authors note, as evidenced by Louisiana’s Graduation Index, which rewards schools for both dropout prevention and recovery.

Since the state’s Graduation Index was implemented in 2007, the measurement accounts for 30 percent of the School Performance Score for Louisiana high schools. The remaining 70 percent comes from student scores on state assessments. Louisiana also penalizes schools for each student identified as a dropout. The aim is to encourage schools to reach out to those students who appear to be on the path to dropping out.

The study also indentifies Louisiana as being on the forefront of targeting at-risk youth and points to the state’s Dropout Early Warning System (DEWS), which flags students as at risk of dropping out. Here are some of the indicators that students are at risk: if students are absent 10 percent of the days they have been enrolled, if their current GPA is 1.00 or less, if their GPA has dropped by at least a half point, if they are over the typical age for their grade level.

In their recommendations, the report’s authors stress the need for states to rely on creative solutions to replace traditional programs that are proving ineffective. As an example, they again point to Louisiana, and specifically to the state’s Recovery School District (RSD), which has absorbed the state’s chronically low-performing schools.

"In Louisiana, this intensive support structure has helped drive student performance," said the report’s authors, referring to the fact that the annual graduation rate for RSD high school seniors rose from 39 percent in 2007 to 67 percent in 2008.

In response to the Obama administration’s heavy focus on dropout prevention, companies are issuing products to target the problem.

Pearson Education recently launched Prevent, a software program that aggregates student information data points to pinpoint which students are most likely to drop out of school.

Data include a student’s grade point average, discipline history, attendance, and grade level. The software includes an early warning system for educators and helps them determine how to prevent students from leaving school without a diploma most effectively.

According to current estimates, some 1.2 million students drop out of school each year–equivalent to 7,000 students a day. Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that nearly one in three ninth graders at public high schools do not earn a diploma in four years. Students who never receive a high school diploma earn some 80 percent less than their degree-earning peers and are more costly for state and local governments.

"When you look at the dropout problem, the country is bleeding. We are literally bleeding out these students," said Gary Hensley, founder of Prevent and director for student growth at Pearson.

Hensley said educators need to be aware of and support the effort to decrease student dropout rates, especially in today’s economy.

A typical school guidance counselor serves 479 students on average, and using Prevent will help educators recognize the dropout danger signs earlier, providing more individualized attention to these students, Hensley said.

Educators in California’s Anaheim Union School District have used Prevent for nearly two years. Using the product has allowed educators to identify students who might not be as obviously at risk for dropping out as other students, said Frederick Navarro, the district’s assistant superintendent.

"Before Prevent, educators would invest their time with obvious at-risk students and practice random acts of guidance with others. We can now make strategic decisions about how to save students from dropping out, and we can ensure that no students slip through the cracks," Navarro said.

Links:

Pearson Prevent

"Partners in Prevention: The Role of School Community Partnerships in Dropout Prevention"

"Achieving Graduation for All: A Governor’s Guide to Dropout Prevention and Recovery"

"Reducing Dropout Rates through Expanded Learning Opportunities"


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