YES Prep Director Keith Desrosiers uses notebooks to keep administrators up-to-date on all students.

Jan 15 2008

Fighting Dropouts

By the time you go home today, 7,000 more high school students will quit. But some educators are reversing this trend using the one tool that has proved powerful enough to stop them in their tracks.

By the time you go home today, 7,000 more high school students will quit. But some educators are reversing this trend using the one tool that has proved powerful enough to stop them in their tracks.

The numbers aren’t pretty: A five-year study by Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, reveals that 1,700 high schools in this country are graduating a mere 60 percent of the students who enrolled as freshmen. He dubs them “dropout factories.” Other reports, such as the Economic Policy Institute’s evaluation of the National Education Longitudinal Study data, paint a slightly rosier picture. They say national graduation rates stand at 82 percent, with rates for African-American and Hispanic students at about 75 percent.

Either way you slice it, that’s unacceptable in a society where 80 percent of current jobs require postsecondary education, says Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C. Where the U.S. was once the world’s leader in graduation rates in the 1960s, today it is 18th of 23 industrialized nations. “If you look at the international marketplace and global competition, we have remained static while other nations have jumped ahead. So I think the situation is getting worse,” he says.

The economic impact is even worse. According to Wise, the 1.2 million members of the class of 2007 that did not graduate will cost this country $300 billion in lost income alone over their lifetimes. “Whether you even live in a community with a bad high school, you will be affected,” he warns.

But take heart. Educators do have a secret weapon up their sleeves: technology. Computers hold the answer to addressing — and solving — the two largest causes of dropout: poor analysis on the school’s side and boredom on the students’. To adapt a Hollywood phrase, “If you make it relevant, they will stay.”

Here are three examples of how schools can leverage their technology assets to improve graduation rates by overcoming one or both of these criteria.

YES Prep Public Schools

Warning Signs

  • 59 to 65 % of respondents missed class often the year before dropping out.
  • 38% believed they had “too much freedom” and not enough rules.
  • 81% said there should be more opportunities for real-world learning and experiential learning.
  • 81% of dropouts wanted better teachers and
  • 75% wanted smaller classes with more individual attention.

Students at YES Prep Public Schools’ southeast campus use computers to reinforce core curriculum lessons. They use English skills to create effective résumés in their desktop publishing classes. They build online roller coasters using science principles. Using history books, they create newsletters as if they were living in another century.

But why can School Director Keith Desrosiers boast a zero percent dropout rate in a school population where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 98 percent are minorities? The lion’s share of the credit goes to the school’s culture, which expects 100 percent of its participants will attend a four-year college, period. Educators form personal relationships with students to help them achieve just that. They can do that, however, because the school issues notebooks to every one of the 65 teachers at this campus.

“If we expect our students to be fluent with technology, our teachers have to be fluent with technology,” says Rita Vasak, the technology director for YES Southeast. And she’s talking about more than merely storing grades online. Thanks to its student information database system, teachers can analyze test results and nip problems in the bud. Grade level chairs can access a student’s discipline history, read notes on parent meetings and jump right into a conversation. “Even if they don’t have knowledge of a situation, they have access to it,” Desrosiers notes.

“I am a big fan of my laptop computer and would be horrified if anything happened to it, but it’s a tool. At the end of the day, I want my students and staff to know how to use that tool appropriately,” he adds. “I want them to know how to look up things when they don’t know the answers.”

Since biting the bullet to put a notebook on every teacher’s desk, Vasak has also seen an uptick in lesson creativity. “It’s something that works more by contagion than by mandate,” she says. “You can tell teachers what to do, but if they see something exciting, then they want to incorporate it in a much more holistic way.”

Los Angeles Unified School District
Los Angeles

Every marketer worth her salt knows the secret to effective advertising is to fish where the fish are.

So when Los Angeles Unified School District committed to improving its graduation rates, Director of Drop Out Prevention and Recovery Debra Duardo turned to Web 2.0 applications. It instantly solved the first hurdle: School personnel couldn’t find many of the students who disappeared from the seats. The few dropouts they did corral let it slip that their age group was hanging out on the Internet.

So Duardo created a Web site devoted to re-enrollment, and detailed alternative schedules and paths available. Next, she pulled together a cadre of high school returnees and put them in charge of communicating to their peers via a MySpace page. The 60 student mentors also filmed YouTube video clips to tell their stories and encourage their buddies back into the fold. They took to the airwaves on a hip-hop station with public service announcements highlighting that high school graduates earn an average of $175 more every week than dropouts. And finally, Duardo’s office began text messaging former students when peers shared cell phone numbers.

“I just talk to people on MySpace about what I went through,” says Miguel Garcia, one of the student mentors. “I had very bad grades and didn’t like school very much. But you can’t do anything without a high school diploma and I don’t want to be working at a low-paying job.”

Because the effort is just three months old, concrete results are sketchy. However, Jordan High School can thank the effort for 67 returnees, by Lamont Millander’s count. This diploma project adviser says some of these students were as close as four classes to earning a diploma when they initially split.

LAUSD’s goal is to put at least 5 percent of the 17,000 current dropouts back in seats. That would be a gain of 850 students. “And it’s such a minimal cost to do that, I don’t even know what we spent,” says Duardo. “As a parent, I worry about how much time our children spend online. But as educators, we have to look at the positive things that come with that. If we can use this form of communication, we have to do it.”

Florida Virtual School
Orlando, Fla.

Florida Virtual School’s mission from day one was to transform education, not replicate it, says its president and CEO Julie Young. “There has long been a feeling that students are captives rather than customers. We looked at how to do this differently so we can engage and keep kids,” she says. It was a worthy goal for the Sunshine State, which ranks second behind South Carolina in “dropout factories.” According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, those lost students will create a $26 billion drag on their state in lower incomes, greater use of public services and higher crime rates.

So differently in this case means students learn in their own time, their own space and in their pajamas if they so choose to complete their education via FLVS’s hundreds of fully accredited online courses. Unlike the other public schools in Florida, the state only compensates it when a student successfully completes his or her coursework.

Because the online school is also a haven for home-schooled families and traditional students who choose to take an extracurricular subject not available in their brick-and-mortar schools, Young can’t quantify the positive impact her online program has on dropouts. The anecdotal feedback is strong enough, however, to say it’s working.

Take Arin DeVine, for instance. After flunking the state’s standardized seventh grade test last spring, teachers at Emerald Coast Middle School in Santa Rosa Beach recommended she repeat the seventh grade. “But my grade average was high. I had all As and Bs,” she says. “My parents felt there was no reason for me to be held back because of one test. So we looked everywhere and found I could do eighth grade with FLVS and then go to high school with my class.” This potential dropout says online classes have offered her more examples and better one-on-one guidance. At this point, DeVine is leaning toward taking ninth grade courses via computer as well.

Young takes the virtual school’s mission just as seriously. She recently began offering online social clubs, Honor Society meetings and even college open houses. Students use the Web to elect officers, plan service projects and arrange for award luncheons. “A lot of kids aren’t part of their school communities for a variety of reasons,” she says. “In the FLVS community, they can be themselves. They don’t have peer pressure issues. And they aren’t just logging on and taking a course — they fit in.” As a result, her waiting list for enrollment stands between 3,000 and 5,000 students.

“In the old days, we could get by with just a third of our youth going on to college — they could pull the rest of the economy along and there were enough good paying jobs in blue-collar areas,” Wise sums up. “But we have reached critical mass. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring dropout rates any longer.”

Dueling Numbers

Pinning down the number of dropouts in the United States is akin to nailing Jell-O to the wall for most researchers. That’s because this country offers no standard way to collect such information among states and even school districts.

The U.S. Department of Education keeps statistics, of course, gleaned from data submitted from state databases. Researchers like Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk have deemed the department’s numbers sound enough to serve as a basis for its highly quoted Locating the Dropout Crisis report.

The Economic Policy Institute has a bone to pick with that report’s claim that only two-thirds of all students and half of minorities end up with a high school diploma. For starters, it computes these rates by dividing the number of diplomas awarded by the number of students who were in ninth grade four years earlier. But the calculators don’t figure in that many students are pushed into high school for social reasons and then held back by performance. The EPI researchers prefer to get their number from the National Education Longitudinal Study because it tracks individual students and their experiences — including transfers — during the four years.