Key to school dropouts: Knock on their door

School officials and volunteers in Houston have been knocking on the doors of students who didn't show up at the beginning of the school year, offering ways for them to get their diploma. As a result, the dropout rate has fallen significantly. This could be a model for other school districts.

The high school graduation rate in Houston has gone up thanks to a unique program. School officials and volunteers have been knocking on the doors of students who didn't show up at the beginning of the school year, offering ways for them to get their diploma.

As back-to-school season gets into full swing, Houston students who aren’t back can expect an early morning knock on the door Saturday.

It might be the mayor, the superintendent, or a group of volunteers showing up at the door, and they’ll know exactly which credits a student needs and a variety of options for how to get them.

“For too long a lot of these young people have felt no one cared about them,” says Houston Superintendent Terry Grier. “What [the day] symbolizes is that we do care about you and that your high school education is absolutely essential to your future, and to the future of Houston, Texas, and the country.”

This is the seventh year the city has held its Grads Within Reach walk to bring back dropouts and help them earn their diploma. Houston and other districts trying something similar around the country are starting to see results.

Last year, after Houston volunteers talked with 744 families, 66 students re-enrolled during the Saturday event. And 400 students graduated this May who otherwise would not have, after participating in the city’s online credit-recovery programs known as Grad Labs.

Houston dropout rate drops

The dropout rate dropped from 18.7 percent in 2008 to 15.8 percent in 2009, the first significant decline in years, officials say.

Nationally, about 3.3 million young adults in a given year are out of school and haven’t yet earned a high school credential.

Houston is an example of what a school district can do when it has a sophisticated data system to inform its strategies to improve graduation rates.

“To get an accurate read on recent dropouts … allows you to build prevention and recovery programs tailored to meet [their] needs,” says Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education in Bethesda, Md., which tracks graduation issues.

For the past week, a sort of “war room” has been set up in Houston’s central education office to put together accurate profiles of students not yet re-enrolled.

People like school board president Greg Meyers have been calling homes to find out if student records are up to date and why they aren’t in school. One young man he reached, John Dudley, had all his credits but had failed the math portion of the state exit exam, so he wasn’t granted a diploma.

John says he plans to come back to get help with math and take the test again in October. He wants to work with his brother in radiography, and knows that he’ll need his high school diploma to get on track for that.

Year-round effort to help dropouts

Efforts in Houston continue year-round to devise individual plans for former dropouts.

“As you get out and walk [you hear] the challenges they’ve been confronted with, and why they chose not to come back to school,” says Superintendent Grier. “That always helps me ... understand that a one-size school does not fit all children.”

Reasons he’s heard for dropping out run the gamut from simple boredom to needing to get a job to put food on the table. Among 49,000 students in the district, 8 out of 10 come from low-income backgrounds.

This year, returnees have a new option: Twilight High School. Evening and Saturday hours at various schools will enable students with obligations during the day to complete their education.

Former Houston principal Stanton Lawrence now leads a similar outreach effort as superintendent of the Normandy School District, which serves urban suburbs near St. Louis. He’s learned that it takes persistent focus to budge the dropout rate. Last year, the district’s first walk drew 30 dropouts back to school, but just 3 of them have graduated so far, and a number have dropped out again.

“I don’t think we did a good job of making certain when the young people returned that they had the resources they needed ... to stay in school,” Mr. Lawrence says. This year, he and other community leaders are redoubling their commitment to keep checking on students and confronting whatever barriers crop up.

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