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Using Early Warning Signs, Interventions to Prevent Rural Dropouts

Rural school leaders can use statistics on students' "ABC"s—attendance, behavior, and course performance—to spot trouble in those areas and pinpoint specific intervention thresholds,according to experts at a recent U.S.Department of Education webinar.

The 90-minute presentation earlier this month, "Utilizing the Village: Using Early Warning Indicators and Interventions to Help Rural Students Succeed in School," offered detailed strategies for rural educators looking to improve their graduation rates and prevent dropouts.

Bob Balfanz, co-Director of Everyone Graduates Center, based in Baltimore, Md., said schools need to figure out data-driven responses to over-age, under-credited students, and doing that means understanding when students are most likely to drop out. If schools can identify when students are most at risk, officials can provide better support for them.

A team of adults should be looking at students' behavior, attendance and grades biweekly so teens are monitored in real-time and so that help can be given before they fail, are suspended, or miss school for a month, Balfanz said.

Balfanz suggested other strategies such as talking with dropouts to determine what kind of help could have benefited them, and organizing teachers into teams so their collective knowledge can be leveraged in working with at-risk students.

Schools should evaluate all of their intervention efforts, continue those that work and discontinue those that don't, he said.

One rural administrator featured during the presentation emphasized the importance of schools connecting with students and their parents. Mark Willoughby, director of schools for Dekalb County in Tennessee, said his district requires teachers to keep records of when they've contacted parents, and teachers monitor students with poor grades and schedule conferences with them.

The school's graduation rate and ACT scores have improved, and enrollment in its lone high school has grown to about 840 students.

"And a whole lot of it is done by people just getting in, making contacts and having face-to-face conferences with parents and with students and forming that connection," Willoughby said.

Another rural superintendent, Joseph Barrows of Ware County schools in Georgia, talked about a tactic the district is using called report card conferences. He said it's yielding good results: The district's graduation rate has gone from a low of 45 percent to more than 80 percent.

Barrows said ensuring every student is connected with at least one caring adult is a priority, and that's key to keeping students in school.

That belief led to the report card conferences, and all of the school's 1,500 students participate. Volunteers, including business and faith-based leaders, are invited to the school when students receive their report cards, and they talk with both high- and low-achieving students about their grades.

Students who aren't doing well have "recovery contracts" to talk about what stifled their success and what needs to change going forward.

The report card conferences are a chance for students to connect with adults, and an opportunity for the community to get to know the school better, Barrows said.

Those were just a few highlights from this webinar, and there was much more featured that we couldn't fit in this blog post. The webinar suggested the following resources:
• the National High School Center, which has online tools that can be used to organize, analyze and share information on students;
• the Virginia Department of Education, which has a similar tool and technical manual; and
• the Grad Nation Guide Book, which has advice and practical tools for organizing dropout transcripts to figure out their ages and credits.

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