Jan's Corner: Intervene Early to Get them Graduated

Janis Richter
October 1, 2013

If your school or your community is eager to improve graduation rates, you can learn more from this archived webinar from the United Way, recorded in August 2013. Learn what we already know about early warning signs and effective early responses for keeping kids engaged from middle school through high school graduation. Listen in to hear about three different partnerships – in Spokane, Washington, Phoenix and Philadelphia – that have pioneered ways to build trust, share data and strengthen collaborations between schools and community organizations so that students who show signs of disengaging from school are reached early.

Here’s what we know: We can identify early warning indicators that predict greater dropout risk for individual students. These indicators are as easy as ABC – attendance, behavior and course completion.

Intervening to help a struggling student doesn’t happen in a vacuum or in theory. It almost always begins with a real interaction between an adult and the student.

In other words, middle school students with unexcused absences or absences that add up to more than a month of school are at much greater risk for disengaging and dropping out before graduation. Students with one suspension or more, or with in-school disciplinary incidents, are at greater risk. The more courses a student fails to complete or pass, the greater the risk.

The good news is that new data tools can enable teachers and educators to be more accurate in targeting those students who need monitoring and those students who need interventions to get them back on track for graduation. Plus, promising practices for strengthening middle grade experience and boosting students’ on-time transitions to high school and graduation are also gaining ground.

Turning Knowledge into Action

As you can imagine, translating what we know into effective action isn’t easy. What does it take to create a system to gather data on early warning indicators and to use that data to provide effective interventions to students so they get back on track graduation to graduate?

  1. Good Data. Aggregated and individual student data that is aligned with early warning indicators is essential. Good data provides teachers, school leaders and community organizations with the information they need to target kids in need. This means developing an early warning data system that is available in “real time,”  can identify students in need of intervention, clearly identifies each student’s strengths and challenges and helps monitor progress.
  2. Proper Training. Teachers, school staff and tutors need time and training to be able to make good use of the data in planning and implementing appropriate interventions and providing the basis for team discussions about individual students. In one school district, for example, teachers who were “early adopters” of the data were identified as “champions” and given job descriptions to help their peers understand and use the data.
  3. Effective Interventions. This is a challenge, because intervening to help a struggling student doesn’t happen in a vacuum or in theory. It almost always begins with a real interaction between an adult and the student, connecting students with the services and targeted interventions they need to succeed.

Levels of Intervention

In some cases, schools will only have a handful of students with early warning indicators. In such cases, a skilled counselor working within the school might be able to provide the necessary interventions or link the student with what he or she needs to get back on track.

In most cases, however, the scale of the drop-out problem requires a larger response with a range of options. Whole-school interventions might focus on improving and standardizing discipline practices for all students or enhancing learning opportunities through teamwork and hands-on projects that build on middle-school strengths.

Specific targeted responses can be designed to meet the specific needs of students identified by the early warning indicators. Earlier prevention services might help keep more students on track in the first place and reduce the need for targeted interventions later on.

In any case, partnerships between schools and community-based organizations can pull together the resources and energy needed to address the needs of students at risk. Local United Ways across the country have been playing a major role as conveners and intermediaries. They bring together school districts and community-based organizations to share data, take the responsibility of providing services and monitor systems to make sure each student is getting the services he or she needs.

Additional Resources:

Jan Richter is a retired clinical social worker and child psychotherapist, and long-time children's advocate. Read her bio here.