How can schools keep students from dropping out — and get them back when they do?
Dropout Recovery Week — Aug. 5-11 — is a time when many educators discuss what methods are working for them.
For the most part, school officials focus on preventing students from dropping out. Lewis Central High School’s Fast Forward! approach, implemented in 2013, aims to help students focus on the future, Principal Joel Beyenhof said.
“Our goal is that 95 percent of our seniors will have plans to attend a two- or four-year college, technical or trade school or join a branch of the military,” he said. “Most long-term careers where kids want to be are going to require some training beyond high school.”
Setting this goal for students conveys the expectation that they will graduate, Beyenhof said.
“You don’t talk about if you’re going to graduate, you talk about where you’re going to go next,” he said. “Not dropping out of school puts a student in a much better position to pursue their ideal career and not just occupy a job.”
Council Bluffs Community School District has student-family advocates who build relationships with elementary students and their families and 10 graduation coaches — sometimes called school-based interventionists — who work with students at a few elementary schools and all of the middle and high schools, according to Tim Hamilton, .
“It really starts at the teacher level building good relationships,” he said.
School counselors play a big role in assessing which students might be struggling or becoming disengaged, Hamilton said. Graduation coaches reach out to students and their families.
“They’ll do home visits, they’ll set up supports for kids to get help outside of school,” he said.
The coaches also work with juvenile corrections when a student is in trouble with the law, Hamilton said.
“We have a good working relationship with them, we have a good working relationship with the county attorney,” he said.
Each school has a multidisciplinary Success Team (names vary by school) that develops a strategy for helping individual students who need intervention, Hamilton said. Middle and high school teams meet weekly.
Sometimes participating in a club or activity can keep a student engaged and provide an opportunity for them to form friendships, Hamilton said.
The district also hosts the TeamMates mentoring program district-wide.
Lewis Central has a system of supports and interventions it activates if students begin to struggle. The district receives supplemental funding that helps pay for support services. Its six service areas are:
• Academic supports
• Alternative programming
• School-based youth services
• Extended services
• At risk academic and behavioral supports
“Our obligation as a school is to create not only good citizens but productive people — and it helps them reach their goals,” Beyenhof said. “We put all our effort into ‘how can we help you make it through?’”
Lewis Central High School follows a “Pyramid of Supports” designed to prevent students from falling through the cracks, Beyenhof said.
“We do a lot with data — and the reason is so we can intervene early,” he said.
When a student is identified as at risk, teachers make it a point to encourage them by making several positive comments a week — noticing a student’s successes, even if they’re small, and showing they care. It’s important for students to believe in themselves and believe they will graduate, Beyenhof said.
“Hope and belief are huge factors in whether you graduate,” he said.
The school has an At Risk Team that meets weekly to talk about students who seem to be struggling and what interventions have been tried with them and failed and what measures might be effective, Beyenhof said. Students who need to make up credits and have balked at other measures may be placed in a Connections to Graduation class and perhaps required to stay in for recess or after school to make up work that is past due.
“Our interventions are not invitational; they’re intrusive,” he said.
That’s especially true when a student is not attending regularly, Beyenhof said.
“We go get you — we go to your home,” he said.
Unfortunately, there are always some students who drop out.
“Attendance is probably the No. 1 indicator that they’re going to drop out,” Hamilton said. “The majority of kids don’t say ‘I want to drop out of school.’ There are other factors that are driving them.
“I think the causes are vast,” he said. “It can be having to work, mental health issues, substance abuse — not necessarily by them but by family members. There can be just personal things going on with them — it runs the gamut — (such as) not feeling like they have friends at school.”
Maybe it’s just not the right time in an individual student’s life to focus on school and be successful, Hamilton said.
“We just continue to try to re-engage them and get them to come back,” he said. “I think kids are smart. They know in life they’re going to be more successful if they stay in school. It’s not that they’re choosing to not be successful, but life gets in the way sometimes. I think it’s our job to be ready when they’re ready.”
Though they attract little attention, some dropouts do go back and finish their diplomas, Hamilton said.
“Each year, we have some success stories of kids who have been gone maybe a year, and they came back and we get them to graduate,” he said. “If you don’t have an engaging curriculum or multiple pathways or something that hooks them, it’s much harder.”
Students can attend high school until their 21st birthday if needed, he said.
If a student comes back — since they’re probably behind in credits — a graduation coach will sit down with them and talk about what they need to do to graduate, Hamilton said. It may mean enrolling at Kanesville Alternative Learning Center, taking some courses online or having a teacher and/or paraeducator stay late and work with them after normal school hours for certain classes.
Both Council Bluffs Community School District and Lewis Central Community School District have improved their graduation rates in recent years. In 2017, Council Bluffs achieved a rate of 88.42 percent, up from 87.11 in 2016, and Lewis Central chalked up a rate of 93.36 percent, up from 92.8 percent. Both districts have generally been on an upward trend for years, although Council Bluffs’ rate dipped slightly in 2016.
Ultimately, it is relationships, not methods, that keep students in school, Beyenhof said.
“The glue that keeps it all together is relationships,” he said. “At the end of all of it, when a student knows you truly care about them and want them to graduate, they feel that.”