It’s an all too familiar story for teachers who work with at-risk students. The system fails them, they dropout of school and face a difficult life ahead. If they are lucky, they will successfully complete their GED, but many don’t. Without a high school diploma, earning a liveable wage proves challenging to say the least.

VOCABULARY 180In a new effort to reduce the national dropout rate, Graduation Nation seeks to raise our nation’s graduation rate to 9- percent by 2020. Funding for this mission is offered by Bill and Melinda Gates as well as Colin and Alma Powell. While the group is shedding light on a very serious problem our nation faces, it is a difficult challenge knowing that there are approximately 1 million students yearly that opt to leave the school system prior to successfully earning their high school diploma.

Fueled by billions of dollars in government and foundation funding and adopted as a cause célèbre by no less than Bill Gates and Colin and Alma Powell, dropout prevention has been gaining momentum. But educators and researchers who work with at-risk students say there is no way to really achieve the Graduation Nation goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 without taking time to find, bring back, and keep the students who have already fallen through the cracks, at a rate of roughly 1 million every year.

“You could almost say all high school reform is a version of dropout prevention and student re-engagement, and that’s all well and good, but … we’re still hemorrhaging students away,” says Andrew O. Moore, a senior fellow at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, in Washington. “There are a lot of hopes attached to prevention strategies; dropout recovery has been a really neglected function.”

New data and technologies offer greater opportunity to find and reconnect out-of-school youths than ever before. Educators say emerging intervention models hold promise not just to build credits for an equivalent certificate, but to rebuild dropouts’ academic, social, and emotional foundations for success beyond high school.

A new analysis of high school completion from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center finds that the graduation rate for America’s public schools stands just shy of 75 percent for the class of 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. The graduation rate, which has risen nearly two full percentage points from the previous year and about eight points in the past decade, has reached its highest point since 1973. Yet the EPE Research Center finds 1.8 million young adults ages 16-21 are neither enrolled in school nor have completed a high school education.

“We know the field has matured enough that we have early warnings, risk calculators, longitudinal monitoring—all of which can tell districts shades of gray about which students fit a risk profile to drop out,” says BethAnn Berliner, a senior research associate and dropout researcher at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group. “We’ve also got the soft technology for getting those kids back, the social media, and immense door-to-door campaigns.

“But I don’t think there was a hunger to return dropouts before the economic downturn,” she says. “It was believed that there were still places in the economy that they could go. We know now that isn’t the case.”

Lost Potential

In generations past, out-of-school youths were able to substitute a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate for a standard diploma—if they needed one at all to get a good-paying job—but studies during the past 20 years have shown adults who got a GED without additional postsecondary credentials fare little better on the job market than outright dropouts.

The long-term effects of not having a high school diploma—on a person’s career earnings, health, social situation, and likelihood of incarceration—are so disastrous that cost-benefit analyses find that for every $1,000 spent on dropout prevention, society reaps a return of $1,500 to $3,000. A 2011 study in Education Research International finds similar benefits from bringing dropouts back: Even after taking into account the students who drop out multiple times, dropout recovery returns three times the money invested in it.

That may change with the introduction next year of a new, more rigorous, and more expensive GED, but now educators are pushing hard to steer students to a traditional high school degree.

“I’d like to think [attention to dropouts] comes from a surge of academic conscience, but every student that drops out is a capital loss … and every one brought back is a reclaimed revenue source,” says Larry M. Perondi, the superintendent of the 20,300-student unified school district in Oceanside, Calif. “It’s real easy to not think about these kids,” Perondi says, “because they’re not the easiest population to work with, but there are so many of them, … and, man, there are some really bright kids who have dropped out of school.”

On the other side of the country, Dericka Ingram, 19, could have been one of those lost students. Organized, thoughtful, and conscientious, Ingram was named a “Star of the Month” in 2008 at Belmonte Middle School, in the Boston suburb of Saugus, for demonstrating “greatest assistance to others.”

Mapping Population Patterns for Recoverable Youths

An original analysis conducted by the EPE Research Center reveals state-to-state and regional differences in the percentage of youths who do not have a diploma (or an alternative credential) and are no longer in school. Nationally, according to the analysis of data from the 2011 American Community Survey, 6.5 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 21 lack a diploma and are not enrolled in school. Higher concentrations of such “recoverable” youths are found in the South, Southwest, and West. Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Montana, and Nevada have the highest percentages, at roughly 9 percent each.

But the high school transition was rough, and her mobility proved to be a problem. When Ingram had to move in with her grandmother and transfer from Everett High School in Everett, Mass., to the South Boston Education Complex, the new school either never received or wouldn’t accept her previous credits, she says.

“I had to start from the beginning because they never sent over my classes,” she recalls. “I didn’t like it. At all. I was looking for a job as well, so I figured, since I don’t want to go to that school anyway, … I just up and left.”

In many places, Ingram wouldn’t have had much choice after leaving school, particularly since she is overage. But the teenager was leaving school just as Boston was committing to giving her a way back.

One-Stop Approach

Boston is one of a network of cities, including Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore., that have established “re-engagement centers”—one-stop shops to help returning students find a new school or online classes; connect with social workers and therapists when needed; and plan for college and a career.

Texas’ Statewide Strategy

Five years ago, concerns about Texas’ high dropout rate led to a statewide focus on recovering the students who had already left school. One program that emerged was an initiative to recover dropouts that was considered unique in the nation.

While most work on dropout recovery takes place at the local level, the Texas legislature enacted a law that allows the state to provide funds to school districts preparing students as old as 26 to receive their high school diplomas. The Texas Education Agency also began a dropout-recovery grant program that ran from 2008 to 2012 and offered support to districts, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education interested in bringing students back to school. The agency partnered with the Boston-based Jobs For the Future to train grantees and facilitate the sharing of best practices among them.

Each grantee created its own program, which could offer students pathways to a high school diploma or to demonstrating college readiness. The structure and results of programs across the state varied. Some were mainly online, while others involved door-to-door recruitment and in-class programs. In 2011, six of the programs were responsible for most of the recovered students—but the successful programs included both school districts and nonprofit organizations. Most programs offered financial incentives for students who met specific benchmarks and earned diplomas or certificates of college readiness. Overall, the results were striking: By 2012, the program had served more than four times as many students as it had anticipated.

But a tighter state education budget meant the program had no budget after 2012, and the last grant cycle ended in March. The TEA created a website with resources on dropout recovery, which it hopes districts will continue to use despite the funding drop-off.

Continue reading: Dropout-recovery efforts draw new attention

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