No Child Left to Drop Out: Instilling the “Intentionality” of Graduation
Dropout prevention should begin long before teens reach high school.
By S.C. Torrington
Each year in the United Sates, approximately 1.2 million students drop out of
Data from the Maryland State Department of Education reveals that in 2007-08,
about 9,800 students dropped out of high school in Maryland, or 3.4 percent of
the total student population. Embedded in that number is a 7.9 percent dropout
rate in Baltimore City and a 4.3 percent rate in Baltimore County, according to
2008 data cited by Advocates for Children and Youth, a local nonprofit
dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth in Maryland.
In an effort to devise solutions to lower the dropout
rates in these areas and throughout the state, teams from all 24 Maryland public school systems met
this past June with members of America’s Promise Alliance at Randallstown High
School, in Baltimore County, for the Brighter Futures: Maryland’s Dropout
Prevention Leadership Summit. Launched by former
Secretary of State General Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, America’s Promise
Alliance is a nonprofit that has been co-sponsoring dropout summits in cities
throughout the nation.
Among the speakers at the Maryland conference was Robert Balfanz, Ph.D., a
research scientist with the Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) at
Johns Hopkins University and co-director of its Everyone Graduates Center. In
his presentation “Building a Graduation Nation,” Balfanz outlines five steps
that school administrators, educators, parents, and communities need to take
together to help lower high school dropout rates.
1. Know who, when, where, and why students are dropping out. For the class of 2009, examine attendance,
suspensions, and course failure patterns in grades 6-10. How many students who
did not graduate on time had poor attendance, got into trouble, and/or failed
Balfanz says CSOS divides high school dropouts into four categories based on
their reasons for dropping out:
•Life Events. Forces outside of
school (such as a job, pregnancy, death in the family, or other change in
family dynamics) cause students to drop out. The youth need support to overcome
these life events and stay in school.
•Fade Outs. These students
actually do satisfactory work in school, but see no reason to stay in school,
sometimes leaving only a few credits shy of graduation. Helping teens make the
connection between high school graduation and future success can prevent them
from dropping out.
•Push Outs. Students who are, or
who are perceived to be, detrimental to others in the school setting often
decide not to return to school after a suspension.
•Failing in School. This is the largest
section of dropouts—these students simply give up. Schools and parents
must be vigilant to watch for early warning signs from students who are falling
off track such as, for example, students in grades 6-10 who are chronically
absent, show mild but sustained misbehavior, or fail courses and need
intervention and attention.
2. Transform the secondary schools that most dropouts attend. Education systems need to implement comprehensive,
systematic, and sustained whole-school reforms that address the ABCs:
Attendance, Behavior, and Course performance.
In a recent interview, James McPartland, Ph.D., executive director of CSOS,
stresses that everyone should play a role in preventing students from dropping
“The Center for Social Organization of Schools’ focus is for whole-school
improvement through improved school organization, classroom instruction,
teacher support, and family involvement,” he says.
3. Develop comprehensive student support systems in and out of school. Balfanz suggests the use of national service
organizations such as Americorps to provide mentoring, tutoring, homework
support, and management of attendance
and behavior programs at an affordable price.
4. Establish supportive policies and resource allocations. Conduct a policy audit at the school, school
district, and state levels to determine how current attendance, grading,
suspension, grade promotion, and credit policies either positively or
negatively affect the number of students eligible to graduate.
5. Build community will and capacity. Since communities bear the costs of the dropout crisis, CSOS advises that
they need to be part of the solution. This requires a five- to 10-year
commitment—bringing together different sectors of the community to adopt
strategies for dropout prevention and to submit to an ongoing evaluation of the
effectiveness of those strategies.
A Matter of Family
“A student’s future is the family’s
future,” says Dr. Joyce Epstein, principal research scientist at CSOS and
director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, a
research group supporting increased family and community involvement, at Johns
Dropouts often require sustained family support, which can drain resources from
parents and siblings. On the other hand, Epstein says, an educated, employed
young adult can influence and assist others in his or her family and contribute
to the community. Also, the first in a family to graduate high school or attend
college influences younger siblings to do the same.
“Graduates become family standard-setters,” Epstein explains.
She adds that the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins
guides districts, schools, families, and communities to work together as
partners in students’ education.
These partnerships require schools to
provide families with good, understandable, and timely information at every
grade level about school policies on attendance and behavior, graduation
requirements, credits earned and credits needed, and options for college
attendance or career development.
“All of the important people in students’ lives—at home, at school, and
in the community—can influence students to see themselves in the role of
student, stay in school, and graduate from high school with their needed
courses and credits,” says Epstein.
A Lesson from Harford County
It’s a lesson they already
seem to have learned in Harford County, where the dropout rate is 2.9 percent.
Debora Gavin Merlock is founder and president
of The Greater Edgewood Education Foundation (GEEF), an organization of
community and business partnerships devoted to raising public awareness, pride,
and support for the quality of education in the Greater Edgewood area
schools—Abingdon, Deerfield, Edgewood, and William Paca/Old Post Road
Elementary Schools, Edgewood Middle School, and Edgewood High School.
“As the mother of four children in the local school system, I was concerned to
see that, by middle school, there was a lot of negativity toward what was
happening in our schools. I wanted to focus on the positive,” explains Merlock
when asked what convinced her that the Edgewood community needed a group such
Created in 2005, GEEF provides local families social support and motivation to
help their kids to successfully advance through school and be academically prepared
“We want students and parents to start thinking about college early, so
students aren’t playing catch-up with missed learning skills,” say Merlock.
“Taking rigorous courses in high school can be challenging if students didn’t
prepare academically through their elementary and middle school
Leann M. Schubert, coordinator of School Improvement for Harford County Public
Schools, describes GEEF’s efforts as instilling “the intentionality of
graduation” in all students, starting with 4- and 5-year-olds.
For instance, one GEEF program called College Pathways targets students in kindergarten through grade 12. It helps
prepare elementary and middle school students for high school and motivates
high school students to graduate. Offering academic and social support through
peer mentors and networking, College Pathways encourages high expectations
among the students while inspiring them to challenge themselves with more rigorous
In addition, GEEF sponsors an annual education conference at the beginning of
the school year, with free activities for students of all grades. Typically,
there are fun academic programs for the younger students and workshops on
creating long-term goals for the older students. Also, all attendees receive
gifts such as books and homework tools as well as a free breakfast and lunch.
Instilling “the intentionality of graduation” is evident within Harford County
Public Schools as well.
The Edgewood Learning Community (ELC) is a network of the same Greater Edgewood
area schools supported by GEEF. Engaging students in pre-kindergarten through
grade 12, ELC addresses many education issues, including graduation and dropout
Schubert notes that, for example, members of the ELC have developed a Profile
of the Graduate, which describes the characteristics that every graduate from
Edgewood High School should possess. The characteristics include being
inquisitive, caring, balanced, and principled.
“Discussion begins as early as pre-kindergarten as to what skills and
dispositions are needed to successfully graduate from high school and why
staying in school and obtaining a high school diploma is critical,” she says.
On a similar note, Balfanz concludes his presentation at the Brighter Futures:
Maryland’s Dropout Prevention Leadership Summit by saying, “What we face is a
giant engineering challenge of getting the right interventions to the right
students at the right time with the required intensity.”
The good news is that communities such as Edgewood have already begun to come
together to give their kids the support they need to plan long-term goals and
stay in school. BC
Joanne Giza, James Giza, and Dianne McCann contributed to this article as
Free Guide for Dropout Prevention
Download a free copy of Grad Nation: A
Guidebook to Help Communities Tackle the Dropout Crisis, by Robert
Balfanz and Joanna Hornig Fox, of the Everyone Graduates Center, and John M. Bridgeland and Mary McNaught, of Civic Enterprise.
Commissioned by America’s Promise Alliance, it draws upon the latest research
and proven practices to provide guidance to communities on steps to take to end
the dropout crisis and to prepare all students for future success.
For your copy of Grad Nation, visit the
Everyone Graduates Center website, www.every1graduates.org.
The booklet is updated every six months as new insights are gained.
Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE),
America’s Promise Alliance, www.americaspromise.org
Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS), www.csos.jhu.edu
National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), www.partnershipschools.org
Greater Edgewood Education Foundation, Inc. (GEEF), geefinc.com
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. October 2009