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Rural Educators Offer More Tips on Preventing Dropouts

Ensuring students are surrounded by caring adults as well as helping them think about their postsecondary goals are two themes that came up repeatedly during a recent U.S. Department of Education webinar on preventing rural dropouts.

We blogged a couple of weeks ago on the 90-minute presentation, "Utilizing the Village: Using Early Warning Indicators and Interventions to Help Rural Students Succeed in School." The session offered detailed strategies for rural educators looking to improve their graduation rates and prevent dropouts.

In our last post, we focused more on tier one approaches, or those that involve the whole school, such as building a positive climate, providing engaging curriculum, and keeping tabs on students' ABCs (attendance, behavior, and course performance).

This time, we're looking closer at some of the tier two approaches, which are providing early intervention to a smaller group of struggling students, and tier three approaches, which are individualized strategies for students who are in serious danger of dropping out.

One of the tier three approaches came from Julie Turner, a school improvement specialist in Dothan, Ala. Dothan City Schools has started a rigorous process that requires students who are considering dropping out to justify that decision. The district hasfound it's been successful in preventing students from leaving school and given them more opportunities to work with adults.

Dothan serves two high schools with about 1,200 students each. School officials learned in 2007 that they had 127 students who were withdrawing or dropping out, so they started looking deeper into the situation. They found students could dropout without much difficulty (i.e. paperwork, bureaucracy), so they started dropout-counseling plans.

Now, when a student wants to drop out, they must meet with a counselor. The counselor is the first line of defense in saying, "Why do you want to drop out?" and then tries to fix the problem. If that doesn't work, students receive a dropout information packet on career options and the economics of having a high school degree, and students have to write three essays: one on why they want to drop out, another on where they see themselves in the next year, and another on where they see themselves in five years.

Students then go back to the counselor to discuss how dropping out will affect their goals, and they take a practice GED exam. After that, a graduation team made up of counselors, teachers, and the principal discusses what else could be done to help the student.

If students stop coming to school while going through this process, someone from the school goes out to pick them up.

"The harder dropout process has proven a deterrent in itself," Turner said. "I mean, we've had kids that said, 'I'll just go back to class; this is too much trouble.' And that's what we want. We want them to think it's too much trouble to drop out; this is crazy."

This effort was among a number of strategies the school used to address its dropout problem. Its numbers slowly have improved to only two dropouts this year.

One of the tier two strategies discussed came from Mark Willoughby, director of schools for Dekalb County in Tennessee, who talked about a "teach ahead" program being used with middle school students. They found the students in their summer school and intersession (a program during fall break) were there because they didn't do their classroom work; not because they couldn't.

They started to preteach those students, which meant high school teachers would give middle school students high school lessons during summer school. They saw those students' grades improve once they reached high school.

One of the critical factors to that program's success was adults' relationships with students, he said.

"That comes down to a key for almost any of us, is getting to know and have the relationships and knowing what's going on in a child's life so we can help them," he said.

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