For students at risk of dropping out, middle school intervention is key
It’s a story told too many times in urban communities across the country: African American and Latino girls and boys and students from low-income families dropping out of school at a rate far exceeding their white suburban peers. The implications are far-reaching, touching on every aspect of their futures.
Statistically, their fate is virtually sealed. They will earn less (dropouts can expect to earn $1.6 million less than a high school graduate during their lifetimes), go to jail more frequently, and vote less than students who graduate.
They also will get sick more often, and are more likely to die prematurely from disease, cancer, injury, and infection. And if the cost to the individual isn’t depressing enough, there’s the cost to society.
According to a 2007 Brookings Institution study, if the U.S could cut in half the number of high school dropouts in a single group of 20-year-olds (about 700,000 individuals), the country would gain, and accrue for each successive group, $45 billion through extra tax revenue and reduced public health, crime and justice, and welfare costs. During difficult economic times, that’s a bracing figure.
Who drops out? Why?
High school dropouts in Maryland mirror those of the U.S. in general: Low-income and minority students in mostly urban school districts. These students are habitually truant, are mostly male, have experienced academic failure, and have little connection to their school community.
Some of the most frequently cited graduation rate data come from Education Week and the U.S. Department of Education studies. These data show that roughly 70-75% of all students graduate in four years, but the percentages for minority students hover around 60%.
Accurate and consistent information on student dropouts is notoriously difficult to cobble together because of different methods of calculation (the National Center for Education Statistics reports nine graduation rates that have been calculated by states, federal agencies, and researchers). Recent requirements from the U.S. Department of Education will help. By 2011-2012, all states must use a simple calculation of the number of students who graduate with a regular four-year diploma divided by the number of students who entered high school as freshmen.
Maryland, for one, is well on its way to standardizing its graduation rate data by using a new Individual Student Identifier, to be phased in over the next few years. The number is especially important for following students who move frequently, are homeless, or who leave and return to school. In addition, each school system in the state is required by law to develop a comprehensive master plan that must include goals, objectives, and strategies regarding the performance of students failing to meet and/or make progress toward meeting the state’s performance standards.
According to MSDE, African American boys drop out 80% more frequently than their white peers; Latino boys are not far behind at 70%. Next in line are Latino and African American girls. Asian American boys and girls are the least likely to drop out.
This alarming disparity is the reason MSEA’s Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Committee took up dropout prevention and a two-year initiative, School Connectedness = Dropout Prevention, to focus on increasing member awareness and involvement. Mavis Ellis, HCR chair and a pupil personnel worker in Montgomery County, said that by using a presentation to the delegates at the October 2008 MSEA Representative Assembly and a member survey as tools, “Our message is making its way through the membership that dropout prevention is everybody’s business.”
“We see that many students are at risk of dropping out, starting with truancy and academic failure in the early grades, leading to more truancy, more academic failure and discipline problems in middle school,” Ellis added. “They have low expectations for success, and they are dropping out. Everything leads up to that freshman year.”
“Dropping out is a process, not an event! When a student drops out it is the end game,” agreed Robert Murphy, a dropout prevention specialist at MSDE. “He or she shows many signs before dropping out such as truancy, substance abuse, suspensions, and more. All are signals that a student is struggling with connecting or staying connected to school.”
Student surveys strongly point to the emotional connection a student makes with school staff members as anchors. “A teacher, cafeteria worker, coach, principal, or any caring adult—they just want to know someone is paying attention and is concerned about them,” Murphy added.
In the HCR Committee member survey, member after member cited programs that fostered connectedness with the school community as a way to improve student retention through high school. Community coordinators/ambassador programs, Latino Parent Night, family reading events, and pupil personnel workers are just some of the ways schools are trying to connect with families.
For some low income and minority groups where expectations have been lowered and negative school experiences are the norm, creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere in the schoolhouse is the key.
The middle school connection
Creating relationships, and keeping students engaged and in school, is the focus of a number of successful middle school programs that also reach out to parents and community.
“The mission of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School community is a commitment to working together to eliminate the racial predictability of student achievement.” That’s the full-on, no-holds-barred mission statement of Principal Marc Cohen and MLK, Jr. MS in Montgomery County.
Add to that a goal of eliminating the achievement gaps in one year, and you’ve got a school with a no-nonsense agenda of moving students successfully through high school graduation and beyond.
That kind of confidence is helped by the success of the school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program that has made a huge impact on both students and teachers. The school “walks the walk” of PBIS; the program’s shared core values of respect, responsibility, and integrity are integrated at every turn. At MLK, Jr., everyone—students, educators, parents—is on the same page. Expectations for behavior are clear and rewarded, students hear every day from Cohen and the entire staff that they can achieve at high academic levels, and home visits are making inroads in parent participation in school activities.
Michele Gately, PBIS coordinator, says the program has changed the way the school feels to both students and staff. “You can hear kids saying to each other things like, ‘Be respectful,’ ‘That shows integrity,’ and ‘Good job!’ Because student behavior is better, everyone, staff and students, has a more positive attitude about school. The kids can see and feel that.”
PBIS has helped reduce referrals at MLK, Jr. by 41% and suspensions by 90%. That means more class time for students (861 saved instruction hours for students), which means improved learning, which means better test scores. “Once you have the framework down—that we are all functioning well in our environment and we’ve eliminated suspensions and referrals—then we can start talking about why the use of equitable classroom practice is so important.”
Statistics bear out the enthusiasm of Cohen and Gately about programs and progress at MLK Jr. Since 2005, reading scores for Latino children have improved nearly 22%, ESL student scores have risen 18%, and the number of African American students mastering algebra has nearly doubled.
Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)
More than 3,500 middle and high schools around the country use the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program to target low-income and minority students in the “academic middle.” They’re the ones who often slide through middle and high school without reaching their academic potential.
For one period a day (or comparable), the AVID student learns to be a true student, mastering note-taking, research, writing and study skills, using tutors when needed, learning about colleges, and hearing success stories. As school engagement grows, and social and academic confidence builds, they become leaders and role models for other students.
In Anne Arundel County, the AVID program has evolved to provide a complete safety net around the students it supports, and in the adolescent social mayhem of middle school that is very important, especially for the student at risk of falling through the academic cracks. “While that was not the original intent, that is one of the best things to have happened to our students in some time,” said Tim Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.
“I strongly believe that AVID helps students at all levels. Those who might not want to go on to college leave high school with a much better grasp of high school subject matter than those who don’t have AVID,” Mennuti added.
Kings and Queens
“I tell my students, especially my black males: It’s okay to be cool, but it’s okay to be smart, too. You have to think critically when you listen to or see artists and athletes,” said Prince George’s County music teacher Otis Harris. “Look behind the scenes and see where the real success lies.”
Harris dispenses such practical life lessons while he supports academic success and engages students in the school community, and the world at large, at weekly meetings of Kings and Queens. Harris has been leading the after-school program for African American students for almost 10 years at Martin Luther King, Jr. MS (same school name as the PBIS school in Montgomery County, but unrelated).
For Harris, making sure club members experience a broad vision of the world is part of his mission to prepare them for success in high school and beyond. Study skills, time and financial management, guest speakers (subjects such as college, careers, and teen health), luncheon events, and trips to ski slopes, New York City, and the Smithsonian museums are just some of the ways Harris turns students on to a more integrated cultural experience. Former club members visit, too, sharing with students their strategies for high school success.
“I understand about testing skills, but in order for them to make it out in the world, these kids need to know what they’re dealing with,” Harris said. “There is success out there for them, but they have to work hard to get the confidence and the skills to make it.”
There are testaments to the success of Kings and Queens—like the recent graduates of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and the number of students and parents who keep in touch with Harris on Facebook and MySpace. “It’s a great feeling when former club members come back to thank me for helping to prepare them for high school, college...and life.”
Harris said there’s another important sign of the program’s success and perceived importance by students and parents. Because after-school activity buses have been cancelled, busy parents must pick up their students after the club meeting. Even so, almost all of the 65 Kings and Queens at MLK Jr. still attend club meetings each week.
“Our students deserve and need our focused attention directed to this very serious crisis, which has such a profound effect on their current and future lives as well as our society,” said MSEA President Clara Floyd. “How we deal with the dropout crisis is a reflection of our commitment to our most vulnerable students, their schools and their families.”