Rural Dropout Factories

EdWeek ran a piece recently that doesn't get much air time: the rural schools with dropout issues.  I've always said that we have just as many problems as urban districts, but often we have fewer resources.  I think we also get overlooked because out populations are so much smaller.  From a sheer numbers point of view it seems to make sense.  Go solve the problems in areas with the densest populations and you've truly made a difference.  But imagine how great a difference you could make directing resources to the smaller districts.

There are 2,000 high schools in the U.S. that are "dropout factories." 400 of those are rural. I was curious about the similarities between these schools and my own.  The town in one example has "a convenience store, a dollar store, three churches and a gas station." Check. "We have generational poverty, a lack of aspirations." Check. An online credit-recovery program similar to our TAC, Alt High and strong CTE programs- check, check and check. Hmmm...

The generational poverty is a hard one to overcome; certainly will take at least a full generation of hard efforts to improve.  The lack of aspiration certainly goes hand-in-hand.  A child is raised in uneducated poverty with a mindset that this is enough.  There is no city center nearby as an example of striving and achieving. There are no or few older relatives who are in college or in a white-collar profession.  Getting by is enough. It is certainly evident in school- C and B grades are ok; losing sports teams are ok.

The alternative paths to a degree are easy to put in place if the district is willing to dedicate staff.  An Alt High program and a TAC program each need staffing.  CTE at BOCES is available but expensive.  Making these options available shrinks class size significantly- occasionally too small to justify other classes (good-bye electives, anyone?). The scary thought is the cycle this could start: the school caters to the neediest, inadvertently neglecting the "top" students. The top students' families find better placements leaving behind a proportionally more needy population...

The dropout factories are focusing on the graduation rate (which is actually cohort-based).  This is so hard to overcome. For example, a district that could potentially graduate 70 students, each student who falls short changes the graduation rate by 1.5%.  In this example if only eight of the 70 students find alternative paths to graduation- a fifth year, a GED, an IEP cert- the school's graduation rate falls below 90%.

So what are some ways to turn around and prevent this much dropout?  At least one school is using a Practice Guide from the What Works Clearing House at ED.   How does my schools stack up to what works? They recommend six things: utilizing data, assigning adult advocates, academic support and enrichment, improve student behavior and social skills, personalize the learning environment and engage the students with rigor and relevance. If we talk about explicit efforts, I give us a B. We use data, especially at the lower levels where intervention is critical. We "hot list" out at-risk students with mentor teachers. We definitely provide academic support even if we're lacking on enrichment.

Our learning environment is very personalized currently- class size at the HS is well under 20 and for a small school we have many offerings. But that is all changing.  And we are getting better at raising the levels of rigor and relevance (I know, I ran the HS session on this topic). Our faculty is getting better and differentiating instruction, using PBL and thinking differently about assessments.

Overall, we don't qualify as a dropout factory per se, although we do share a lot of traits.  The trend in the past few years here has been more pro-education, but let's see what the affect the much smaller budget will have.

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