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February 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 5

Helping Dropouts Drop Back In

An estimated 30 percent of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate from high school; the dropout rate among black students is closer to 50 percent (America's Promise Alliance, 2008). Despite the launch of many dropout prevention initiatives, a report from the Urban Institute shows that U.S. students from some minority groups have only a 50-50 chance of earning a high school diploma (Swanson, 2003).
The combination of high school dropouts' lack of skills and the current harsh economic picture puts young people without a high school credential in the center of a perfect economic and social storm. The United States has always had high school dropouts. But with a stressed economy and a lack of jobs that pay uncredentialed workers a living wage, the situation is bleaker for dropouts now than in the past. Nongraduates flounder in the workplace with little hope of catching up. Because high school dropouts earn $250,000 less on average over a lifetime less than graduates do (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2006), their children are more likely to be raised in poverty—and students from impoverished households with undereducated parents are themselves more likely to drop out. Unless the education community intervenes, too many youth will pass their school failures on to their children.
Alternative high schools—like Desert Rose High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, where I am principal—help high school dropouts avoid this storm. Such schools open doors by restructuring the traditional high school program to meet nongraduates halfway. The results can be remarkable. When we fashion school in ways that meet these students' circumstances, many dropouts can receive a traditional diploma or general education diploma (GED) in as little as six months and quickly enter the workforce or pursue postsecondary education. Since Desert Rose opened in 2001, 2,800 of our students have earned diplomas. In the 2008–09 school year, about 2,500 students participated in our high school diploma program and an additional 2,000 studied with us toward a GED, citizenship, or English language proficiency.
Our survey of Desert Rose graduates reveals that 50 percent go on to community colleges or four-year institutions, 25 percent pursue vocational training or become employed full time, and 25 percent plan to enter the military. At "The Rose" we make sure every day is a good day to come back to school and a wonderful day to graduate. But we have found that most at-risk students need multiple opportunities to succeed.

Who Are High School Dropouts?

If we are to help students who have abandoned high school, we need to look beyond such labels as dropouts,nongraduates, or disengaged youth and learn individual stories. At Desert Rose, youth bearing such labels make up our student body. Our student population (currently at 2,300) is 60 percent Latino, 30 percent black, and 10 percent white and Asian. Students come from 38 different countries. Most students are between the ages of 17 and 24. Only one-half of our learners have a high school diploma in their immediate sights; others must learn English before they move into core classes.
As principal since the school's beginning, I've learned that these students have very individual struggles. Yes, students who leave high school early share many characteristics: They often come from urban areas; lag behind in reading and math; have children; and show a record of behavior problems, school absences, credit losses, or retention in grade. But there are just as many differences as commonalities.
Consider a few of our youth at The Rose. Ed came to the school lacking basic skills, credits for core high school courses, and housing. Ed said he was surprised he was still alive at 20, but he wanted to "graduate on the right side of the bars."
Isaac arrived from New Orleans with just a few clothes and no records from previous schooling. Yet his construction teacher said Isaac was the brightest in the class.
Batah and Elizabeth are young adult immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia. They took English as a second language classes with us, progressed into academic classes, and have now completed all their credits and are poised to pass state proficiency tests to graduate. They also participated in the school's summer work-and-learn program to help their families pay for rent and school clothes.
Not all our kids have dropped out of mainstream schools; some were pushed out. Dario, a Latino student who is his family's sole support, told me, "I have to work, and I can't make a 7:00 a.m. class. I quit when I found out I couldn't get credit because of absences."

How We Make It Work

A Competency-Based Design

To meet our students' unique needs, Desert Rose uses a competency-based, continuous enrollment, and continuous completion design in both our regular high school program and our adult program. We operate on a 12-hour day all year round. Classes last for three hours; daytime classes meet five days a week and afternoon, and evening classes meet four days a week. Full-time students take two classes. Each program has attendance requirements, but we are flexible to help students keep attending.
Teachers evaluate all students every four weeks, but students progress through their sequence of classes on "student time," not "teacher time." This means that students who work hard and show they have accomplished the required competencies can move to the next course as soon as they're ready, rather than waiting for a new semester. Through this structure, students can complete required courses for a high school diploma following the Clark County School District's curriculum. Although the curriculum of an alternative school must be real-world and engaging, it must also be credit-bearing so that students can earn a diploma, which most dropouts from traditional schools still want.
The competency-based element is crucial to student success. If learners have significant prior knowledge of a subject, they may place out of required classes through "challenge testing": passing end-of-course exams without attending any classes. Desert Rose also offers classes in English as a second language, GED preparation, and citizenship preparation. We make certain classes—such as health and American government—available as independent studies or online so that students can complete coursework at home, with teacher guidance, and take the necessary tests in school.
In addition to academic courses, many students take career/technical courses—ranging from welding to prenursing to culinary arts. Teachers help students arrange for job shadowing, field trips, and internships. These hands-on classes connect students to the broader world in a way that helps them make life changes.
Although our teachers track students as they complete tasks at their own pace, teachers also plan teachable moments when they instruct a larger group in content that many students need guidance with, such as current events, study skills, family finances, and job preparation.

Relationships and Realistic Guidance

Because many dropouts tell us they felt alienated at traditional schools—"no one cared if I was there" is a typical comment—we work hard at learning about students' lives and nurturing our relationships with them. The school has created our One Stop Center, with help from Clark County's Ready for Life Coalition. Located inside the school, the center is served by volunteers from community organizations, government agencies, and nonprofits, including Nevada Partners, the Urban League, Nevada Public Education Foundation, AARP, Americorps, and many others. Students who need help conquering some barrier to their education come to the center, describe their problem to an intake receptionist trained by AARP and the school, then the Americorps staff takes over. Americorps representatives connect students to the appropriate agencies. In its first year, the One Stop Center provided more than 300 students with counseling, child care, transportation, tutoring, college planning, goal setting, and referrals for employment and health care.
Community partners also aid students who are raising children. Local sororities and other groups gather at the school once a month to provide teen parents with parenting advice, connections to local services, or just a hand to hold. Participants earn points—redeemable for items from diapers to rocking chairs—by taking parenting classes, keeping medical appointments, and attending counseling groups. Our message is, "Take care of your baby and yourself, but don't have more children until you're ready."
Counselors at Desert Rose have discovered that the first question to ask new students is, Why didn't you graduate? Typical responses include I was absent too much, I had a baby, I had to go to work, the school was too big, I was bored, and I screwed up. To help students develop realistic graduation plans, we dig deeper into these stated reasons and students' situations. The student who says classes were boring might be signaling a desire for more hands-on learning, a need for more challenging material, or a possible learning disability. The student who says he can work a part-time job and still take morning classes may not initially reveal that his 15-hour-a week job has expanded to 30 hours a week, with the responsibility of closing the store after 10:00 p.m. on school nights.
To design successful learning experiences for these students, counselors and teachers look beyond the surface problems while addressing the most pressing barrier at that moment. Again, relationships are essential. Dropouts often drift on a sea of good intentions. They will sign up for classes and dip their toes in the classroom, but if some caring adult does not quickly convince these students that success is possible, they don't stay. They want someone to say, "I know your name. I care. I'll see you tomorrow."

A Catch-22 for Alternative Schools

Throughout the United States, programs like Desert Rose are beating the odds to help dropouts drop back in. But such schools face a dilemma. Alternative schools need to have appropriate facilities; high-quality, caring, flexible teachers; good instructional materials; experienced leadership; transportation; and essential social services. It's challenging to meet all these needs under existing funding formulas.
Schools like Desert Rose don't need a funding stream; they need a river, and adult education funding, grants, and donations don't provide the necessary funds. So such schools must seek additional state and federal money. To justify that money, they must file standardized reports and use designated software programs that track student grades and attendance. But it's tough to fit data drawn from the nontraditional, competency-based programming that is key to schools like ours into the formulaic tracking systems of government agencies.
Administrators and teachers at alternative schools like Desert Rose resist giving up successful school designs to get "regular" funding. We know from experience that best practices to reach students who've dropped out include continuous enrollment, year-round schools with day and evening classes, independent studies, career and technical classes, competency-based instruction, and challenge testing. By their nature, alternative students progress better when they work at their own pace. But such school practices create a meltdown in the orderly system of recording tardies, reporting attendance, and so on that government paperwork requires.
Thus a catch-22 faces alternative schools for at-risk students. If we model our programs on the traditional schools that dropouts have fled, these students will likely fail again. However, if we don't conform to the systems required for state and federal funding, we may not secure enough resources to serve these students effectively.
In addition, it's an unfortunate consequence of the inflexible, high accountability targets many states set (like a 95 percent student attendance rate even for programs serving chronic truants) that when an alternative school opens its doors to students like Ed and Dario, the school itself risks sanctions. For example, because we have not met all 37 of our targets under No Child Left Behind provisions, Desert Rose is on a "watch for improvement" list this year.
If our society is to protect students who have fallen through, dropped out, or been pushed out of the traditional system from the perfect storm of educational and social failure, we must offer viable alternative schools. And we must give those schools both stable funding and leeway to provide schooling in nontraditional ways. Alternative schools navigate directly into the worst weather and say to students, "Climb on board. We will get you safely back to shore and beyond, but you've got to do your share. Start rowing. The destination is worth the effort."

America's Promise Alliance. (2008). Stop America's dropout crisis. Washington, DC: Author.

Swanson, C. B. (2003). Who graduates? Who doesn't? A statistical portrait of public high school graduation, class of 2001. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2006). Who makes the money? 2005 average income by educational attainment. Washington, DC: Author.

Sandra Ransel is a school leader in Clark County, Nevada.

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