At-Risk Students: Follow the Money

Summary: Incentive systems for school districts to retrieve and hold dropouts are themselves dysfunctional. Yet, in committed communities dropout retrieval efforts are succeeding.
“Follow the money.” Normally a line uttered on a TV crime show, a recent Education Week article reminds me that the same catchy phrase applies, however ironically, to the financial incentives given schools to retain at risk students or to reengage dropouts.
While the TV show line implies there is money to be traced in the unraveling of a crime, in the case of drop outs and at risk kids there is little money to follow, which is the point. Schools are funded through state funding schemas by the number of students actually enrolled; there is little to no money channeled for drop-out prevention or retrieval. From a fiscal point of view, the troubled dropout simply “drops out” of fiscal calculations for all intents and purposes.
Moreover, according to a parallel piece in Ed Week as, “most state accountability systems give schools and districts little credit for re-enrolling students who have little chance of graduating within four years, or even six years for an extended graduation rate,” says Andrew O. Moore, a senior fellow at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families in Washington.
Though schools and school districts do seize the initiative on drop outs despite the lack of state incentives, they do so out of their own general budget along with a cobbled together grant or two, which leaves the effort something of a fiscal orphan, and likely not as successful as it might have been with a more robustly funded response. Re-enrolled dropouts do bring monies to the district on the same per student basis as a normal student, but a district has to seed the effort initially, and re-enrolled drop outs are in high danger of dropping out again without resources diverted to their support once they return.
The rescue of the students who hemorrhage from our schools and the engagement of their brethren who remain in school, but in an unengaged manner, is highly human resource intensive, and require staffing beyond that simply dedicated to mainline instruction. Should it be a surprise that our schools do poorly in retaining our kids through completion when our funding mechanisms largely to completely ignore their continually documented need for intervention on a relationship level?
Anecdotally, every year in every high school there are students who finish largely because of the relationship teachers or counselors have forged with them. In my experience, high school teachers today devote so much time to data crunching, which legitimately drives a fair amount of instruction, that they have less time than they once did to mentor troubled kids. The problem is that there are too many at risk kids, and too little time to reach them all, or even a majority.
We know that disciplinary issues, varieties of abuse in the home or in kids’ lives, and homelessness put kids on the brink of dropping out, and the daunting task of navigating a confusing future can be the coup de grace. Most kids are redeemable, but only if the adults around them can muster them sufficient support.
Despite this Sisyphean landscape, effective drop-out prevention and retrieval programs do exist, sometimes stimulated by the most desperate of circumstances.
Programs in Boston and Washoe County, Nevada, typify versions of such programs that have managed hard won inroads on the dropout rate; in the case of the latter the county leaders were shocked when a federal audit of their academic progress revealed that only slightly over half of their incoming ninth graders eventually graduated.
In both school districts, aggressive outreach programs have brought back into the fold students who have left school. Efforts have been intensified to work with at risk students before they drop out.
The real truth is that kids who drop out have done so for reasons that still exist when and if they re-enroll. So human resources are needed to make the re-engagement work. Case managers, called “chasers” in one Los Angeles area charter school, become versatile “fixers” for kids who need tutoring, or access to health care, or a place to sleep.
Further, in old models, when kids have returned to their original schools, not only were there no support mechanisms in place, they landed back in a setting where they carried a reputation, academically and behaviorally, and where their social niches have been such that they are drawn right back into dysfunctional habits.
In my high school, even with kids who didn’t graduate on time but returned for a “super senior” year, the number who successful completed their diploma in that setting was only around ten per cent. Those who did graduate, by the way, tended to do so where they had bonded with a staff member.
The solution in Washoe County, and elsewhere, including in my old district in the Seattle area, has been to channel returnees into “re-engagement” centers, where resources can be centralized, and where the social context can be better engineered to promote positive outcomes.
Much of this good work is likely done out of the commitment of communities to their kids, and to their future work force, not through the formal fiscal and accountability systems of their respective states.
The good news is that in Washoe County such centers and associated programs have produced a double digit growth in graduation rates, though work remains to be done.

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