The importance of a college degree may be on the rise in terms of future earnings and life success, but in much of the country, high school graduation remains low. In fact, a number of states remain well below the 81% national graduation rate (which, of course, has been both highly touted and questioned).
Districts face legislative imperatives, as well. Though the looming potential passage of a No Child Left Behind rewrite could curtail, at least somewhat, federal education accountability, many states have built their own systems. As a result, districts are trying to tackle poor graduation rates from both ends — focusing on students who are still in school and those who aren’t but could be.
But dropout recovery programs are a tricky — and sometimes new — beast for districts to tackle. Rebekah Richards, cofounder of Graduation Alliance, which runs and supports dropout recover efforts in several states, says a systematic approach is helpful.
“When we first started doing dropout recovery, we thought we could meet our target for graduation rates as a country by doing dropout prevention,” Richards said. “In 2012, it was the first time I saw an acknowledgment that we had to dropout recovery.”
So here’s Richards’ take on what state education officials and district leaders can do to make their dropout recovery program work.
1. Focus on the future
Most students don’t return to high school in pursuit of an education for its own sake. Instead, 78% of the time, they’re looking for better job opportunities or a chance to go to college, according to Graduation Alliance surveys. So make that a part of the program from the start, Richards says.
Help them research what opportunities they’ll have with a high school diploma and what it’ll take to get there. That way, “when they get stuck in biology and they say why am I doing this, we say, 'You said you wanted to be a state-certified nurse. This is part of your plan,'” says Richards.
2. Hold students — and programs — accountable
Dropout recovery programs are often conducted at least partially online and will have to develop strong systems to check in with students and urge them along. Districts and states should hold programs accountable for demonstrating that students actually develop useful skills.
Richards cautions that the efforts should be about more than the number of students who complete the program. “Students have to come out of these programs and be able to do the work out there or be ready to go into post-secondary education,” she said.
One way to do that is funding. For example, Ohio funds its programs based on the number of students who complete agreed-upon benchmarks.
3. Make finishing school a team sport
Going back to school can be a complex decision for students who’ve dropped out and are often grappling with difficult or demanding life circumstances. As a result, Richards says a successful experience will require strong support: “I can’t emphasize how importance it is to have a network of human beings giving not just academic, but social support.”
That means everything from making sure that students who need them are connected with food stamps or childcare, and that they have reliable transportation to the program.
4. Break down bureaucratic barriers
Dropout recovery often cuts across traditional agency silos, involving agencies focused on everything from homelessness and foster care to economic development and education. Many of those agencies have historically not collaborated, nor have systems at the state and district level.
“We have to have interagency coordination to make this work,” said Richards. “You have to work with legislators and policymakers to break down barriers.” One way to start the process? Clearing the lines of communication.
5. Find long-term funding solutions
Many programs rely on foundation or grant funding, or temporary pots of public dollars. Richards says that type of financial model won’t produce the results states are hoping for; funding will have to be systematic, stable and long-lasting. If funding fluctuates, Richards says the effects on students can be severe.
“One of the most devastating things we can do for this population that’s already had failure, whether that’s academic failure which it’s usually not or compatibility failure, is give them something that’s working and take it away,” she said.
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