Fresh approaches to the school dropout problem

Educators in the 1980s are coming up with some fresh answers to why students become dropouts and exactly when their schools should start trying to do something about it.

The usual explanation for the 25 percent who drop out of high school before graduation -- the figure moves closer to 50 percent in some of the nation's larger cities -- is that they find their courses irrelevant and boring, feel that their teachers don't really care about them, or have such poor skills that the academic challenge becomes just too tough. Efforts to try to keep dropouts in school have generally been confined to senior high students and have often focused on linking an out-of-school job with in-school studies.

Currently more than 5 million 16- to 24-year-olds are out of school with no diploma. And the realization appears to be growing in the education community that many of the traditional explanations are mere surface effects of deeper personal problems. Often a potential dropout can be spotted by a seasoned teacher as early as kindergarten or first grade.

By giving the student then the extra attention needed in developing academic skills and helping him adjust to and value the school experience by closer work with his family, the school staff can often ward off a dropout problem before it really becomes one. Educators are discovering that almost anytime the problem is attacked before the student actually asks for a dropout card or stops attending classes, the results are more effective.

"There's a stronger inclination now to watch for dropout tendencies, such as nonparticipation in class, in the earlier grades and act then rather than wait for high school," confirms Rita Underwood, a program officer in the US Department of Education's division of state educational assistance. "Some of the most successful projects are at the junior high level."

Most of the newer anti-dropout projects put a heavy emphasis on personal contact and extra counseling without necessarily separating the child from his regular classes.

One of the most successful variations on that theme is Project Turnaround which involves 75 students in five junior highs in the Flatbush section of brooklyn. A regular teacher who has had a special training course serves as a combination counselor and listening board by being available to these students an extra half hour before school starts in the morning and (over milk and doughnuts) after it ends in the afternoon. Knowing that his extra interest may make all the difference, the teacher sometimes calls the students before school to be sure they're awake and planning to come.

In this case the students know they have been chosen for the project because they need special attention to do a better job, and the effort is strong to get all 15 students in each junior high committed to helping each other master the problem. They meet together as a group once a week and have occasionally raised money through car washes and other ventures to take themselves out to dinner or to a Broadway play.

"We selected those we didn't think would make it," stresses Dr. Stephen Kaplan, co-coordinator of the Brooklyn project. "And the whole idea is to support them in every way we can, without disrupting the school day, so that no child becomes a hot house flower who couldn't function when the supports are pulled away."

One project which has delved deeply into the causes of the dropout problem and tailored its program accordingly is Project SAIL (Student Advocates Inspire Learning) which is in its fifth year of serving 80 senior high students in the middle-class, Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka.

Project leaders have found little evidence, for instance, to support such frequently cited reasons for dropping out as "No one cares about me" or "My courses are too abstract; they don't relate to anything in my daily experience." Through sample surveys of potential dropouts and more successful students, project directors found that the vast majority of students in both groups said they felt at least one or more teachers really cared about them. Also, dropout-prone students often did poorer in courses that had purposely been made more relevant to their experiences than in more abstract courses.

Potential dropouts fared much better in individual than group intelligence and achievement tests and did not necessarily have a lower self-concept than their more successful counterparts. Many of the potential dropouts, however, had been abused as children and, through death, divorce, or separation in their families, had experienced loss.

Project SAIL's coordinator, Dr. Mary Balfour, argues that such emotional and social reasons for dropping out are in effect a handicap. Accordingly, she leans in part on special education funds to finance her project. Though directors of other projects may argue, too, for such a linkage in years to come, the US Office of Education at present does not regard potential dropouts as handicapped students.

Like many of its counterparts, SAIL stresses individual and group counseling. Students are asked to think about and list their attendance and achievement goals. Though everyone in the project was there because they had dropped out already or were losing credits for some reason, more than 70 percent have remained in school and the great majority have graduated. One SAIL graduate grudgingly admits: "Those dumb goals helped me the most."

Though not all parents are eager to be involved, most successful programs put a high priority on parent involvement. In the Home and School Counseling Program in Plymouth, Wis., for instance -- not billed as a dropout prevention program but which, in fact, has averted dropouts -- parents of students with school adjustment problems are asked if they would find it more convenient to come to school for a visit or to be visited at home.

"Given a choice, they usually pick one option or the other rather than say 'No,'" says Gordon McFarlane, a guidance counselor who makes many of the daily visits.

"It's sneaky-effective."

What message do parents get?

"We tell them that they are the first and most important teacher their child has, that any kind of absenteeism works against the child's education, and that it's very important to encourage him to attend school," Mr. McFarlane says.

All effective dropout prevention programs have two crucial ingredients, notes Jan Novak, coordinator of the dropout prevention project at the Wisconsin Vocational Studies Center, a group that has been reviewing the range of programs and their results. One important constant in each is one or two people who have direct contact with the students -- "We must have heard 100 adjectives like warm , loving, patient . . . ," she says; the other is strong support from the administrative staff for the whole idea.

Jan Novak's group recently developed a comprehensive kindergarten through 12 th grade strategy for dropout prevention projects. It suggests that any program be carefully tailored to fit the individual needs of the students, offer a variety of educational, guidance, and support services, include potential dropouts of every age, and involve other elements of the community such as churches, social service agencies, and businesses.

A message straight from the mouths of hiring business leaders, for instance, on why many prefer to take on high school graduates, she says, carries far more weight with students than a similar message from teachers. Also important, she notes, is a built-in plan for evaluating any project started.

"Lots of programs were started with federal funds for the three-year terms and weren't picked up by the local school board or state legislature because the information they needed to make a decision hadn't been collected," she explains.

While the exact number of school dropouts is a hard figure to come by and is itself subject to a number of research studies, statistics clearly show that dropouts as a group are more apt to earn less, be unemployed, and get into trouble on the streets than their in-school counterparts. It is this growing recognition of the wider dimensions of the problem which prompted the US Justice Department's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention for the first time this fall to award $8 million for programs aimed at curbing the dropout problem and preventing delinquency.

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