By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Students who leave school before finishing a high school diploma often struggle in life, and their numbers are on the rise.
Today one in four Michigan children don’t graduate with their class. Dropouts on average make less than those who complete high school and are more likely to receive government assistance and to be in prison, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group based Washington.
“Realistically, we can’t succeed economically if one in four students is dropping out of school. It’s not sustainable,” said Doug Pratt, communications director for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “We’ve got to make sure students are graduating from high school and moving on to some type of post secondary education.”
The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other education personnel.
Through the Superintendents Dropout Challenge launched last summer by Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, schools are using research-based methods to identify and intervene with students who are at high risk for quitting.
“The goal is to raise awareness that there are data available to identify risk of and prevent dropout,” said Leisa Gallagher, Dropout Challenge coordinator. “Once schools and communities are aware of the urgency to address this problem, Michigan has a better chance to coordinate and systemically address the needs of struggling students.”
Gallagher said between 11,000 and 16,000 students are in the program in elementary, middle school and high school. Younger students are included in the program because early intervention is stressed.
“Students who drop out of school lack the tools to compete in today’s society and diminish their chances for greater success in the future,” said Gallagher.
Participating schools review student records, identify 10 to 15 students each year who are showing signs of dropout risk and intervene.
Pratt said, “It’s a good approach to track at-risk students and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks by providing resources to ensure they get the support they need. It’s a solid approach with good results, and hopefully it can become a key part of our arsenal in the state.”
Pratt said the program is only one part of solving the drop-out problem and that ensuring schools have adequate resources and getting parents and communities engaged are important as well. Solving the problem requires going outside the four walls of the schools, he said.
Intervention methods include graduation coaches, mentoring programs, and engagement of community partners.
Last fall, 142 districts began working with the program and will report on their efforts this summer.
Ken Willison, principal of Englishville High School, an alternative high school in Sparta, said Flanagan is trying to focus districts on the problem rather than having districts try whatever methods they think of.
Willison said his school had already been using many of the recommended interventions, but refined them based on the challenge and adapted a mentoring program.
He said his biggest challenge was choosing students to participate because his school had so many candidates.
It’s too soon to tell if the program is working, said Willison, but he called it a step in the right direction because it teaches schools methods that have shown success in lowering dropout rates.
Willison said he wants to see the drop out initiative expand in the future.
“I understand why you would want to start off small and grow, but it’s pretty small compared to the size of the problem,” he said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.