Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Student Re-Engagement

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Students who fail to graduate – dropouts who perhaps more appropriately should be described as over-age and under-credited – exemplify the significant hurdles that come with the commitment to educate all students. These young individuals have fallen through the cracks, and once they’ve left the school setting, it’s difficult to re-engage them. Yet some efforts to find, support and ultimately prepare these students for future success in the postsecondary environment are showing impressive results. This work is an important reminder that it takes a village – and committed collaboration among key groups of stakeholders – to create a truly comprehensive system.

Several realities and circumstances contribute to students leaving school, and while early warning indicators exist, it can be difficult to identify and intervene effectively in time. Our education system, at the federal, state and local level, is not well designed to incentivize schools and districts to prioritize re-engagement of students who leave schools. School districts are not measured or rewarded for their ability to find and support these youth through to graduation. This reality is something that policymakers might do well to re-examine in light of the renewed emphasis on college and career readiness.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s report The High Cost of High School Dropouts, 1.2 million students dropped out in 2011, with lost lifetime earnings for that class alone totaling $154 billion. The US high school graduation rate is now at 80 percent, the highest level in the past thirty years. But, according to the Youth Transition Funders Group Eduployment report, the graduation rate for youth in foster care hovers around 50 percent, one in four African American and Latino students aren’t graduating in four years, and the rate for those who have been in the juvenile justice system isn’t recorded.

City level efforts are forming to reconnect with students who have left the system. These collaborations resulted from a realization at the local level that the city has a responsibility to support all students, and also that not only is the earning potential of those students lost, but that there is an additional drain on the local economy in the need for  increased social services used by high school dropouts. At a recent American Youth Policy Forum event in Washington, DC, panelists from two municipalities described their different and equally compelling journeys in the effort to re-engage youth.

In Los Angeles, 18,529 students in the classes of 2011 and 2012 dropped out of school. And the future looked bleak – chronic absenteeism, a key early warning indicator for dropping out, was alarmingly high. The district serves a large number of at-risk youth, including 13,794 homeless students and 8,278 foster youth. And in addition, 100,000 youth in the City of Los Angeles between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school and out of work – that’s one in five young people.  The City collaborated with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Pupil Services Dropout Recovery Efforts and the Economic and Workforce Development Department, which eventually realigned its Workforce Investments Funds and to create a new funding formula to prioritize service to out of school youth. The city also received $12 million to dedicate to dropout recovery.

Together, these entities created Youth Source Centers (currently 13, placed strategically in high-needs areas) and the Los Angeles Reconnections Career Academy (which has three sites), all staffed with pupil services and attendance (PSA) counselors. These individuals must meet significant educational and experience requirements, and they are responsible for outreach, educational and psychosocial assessments, case management, training and integration with the LAUSD departments. Services offered through the youth source system include employment services, work readiness training, internships, job placement, cash for college and financial assistance to complete education goals, including G.E.D and adult education courses. In 2012 – 2013, PSA counselors conducted 5,394 educational assessments, with 2,910 youth enrolled in the youth source system and 972 dropouts returned to school.

While Los Angeles has a significant challenge in terms of numbers, communities of all sizes struggle with disconnected youth. In Dubuque Iowa, Re-engage Dubuque is a collaborative partnership between Project HOPE, the Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) and the Dubuque Community School District. The district had 566 dropouts, an average of 141 per year, between the 2008 and 2011 school years. The community did the math and realized that the immediate annual taxpayer burden (in 2011 dollars) per student was $13,900 and the missed earning potential for each student, versus a worker with a diploma or GDP, was $7,000.

Re-engage Dubuque employs two re-engagement coaches who work with individual students and develop a personalized learning plan that enables them to complete high school or obtain a G.E.D as well as examine possibilities for further studies. Since August 2012, they have identified and contacted 206 students, and found that the reasons those students initially left school varied: pursuing work or a relationship, school drama, caring for a child, multiple moves, over-age/under-credited, and family crisis. Of those contacted initially, 180 students re-engaged, and 66 have completed a diploma or GED since August 2012. Additionally, the number of dropouts in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 decreased. 

Both of these communities recognized they had a responsibility to students regardless of circumstance and background. They embraced the idea that they could do more for their young citizens and support them in finishing their education and connecting to the labor market. While schools and districts should be encouraged and supported in engaging students and meeting the needs of individual learners, the students who fall through the cracks and leave the system can benefit from community collaboration that can support them through the transition to adulthood. Nationally, there has been an increased emphasis on factors that identify potential dropouts, such as chronic absenteeism and school discipline policies (including the school-to-prison pipeline), as well as ways to counteract them, such as restorative justice and student engagement. These are steps in the right direction, but partnerships, exemplified by the work in Los Angeles and Dubuque, greatly expand a community’s capacity in a resource-starved era and support their youth in building stable and fulfilling futures.