Strong connections between students and school personnel
are key to dropout prevention efforts
Keys to dropout
The Maine Dropout Prevention Guide from the Institute for
the Study of Students at Risk lists the essentials of a successful
dropout prevention program.
Links related to this story
Amy's family moved so often
that she never stayed in the same school long enough to make friends or
learn very much. She dropped out in the 10th grade.
Ellen left school in the 11th
grade because all she wanted to do was stay at home and sleep. No one
realized she suffered from depression.
Alcohol and marijuana were
Erik's undoing. Jason simply found school unbearably boring.
These four Maine youngsters
are not necessarily typical high school dropouts. But neither is anyone
else. There are nearly as many reasons for dropping out as there are
students who make that choice, according to William Davis, professor and
founder of the University of Maine Institute for the Study of Students
at Risk, part of the College of Education and Human Development.
Davis has researched, taught
and written about students who drop out for more than 20 years. Last
spring, he and two of his colleagues produced the Maine Dropout
Prevention Guide, the most comprehensive and authoritative work on the
subject ever developed for the state's teachers, principals and
"A lot of people, including
educators, tend to define the potential for dropping out almost
exclusively in terms of poor academic performance," Davis says. "But
very often it is a combination of academic and social problems in
school. And sometimes dropping out has little if anything to do with
academic or behavioral difficulties.
"Many of these kids just
don't feel any personal relationship with school. They range in
intelligence from extremely bright to borderline, but they don't see any
real value in attending school."
They apparently think — if
they think about it at all — that they will somehow beat the odds and
not have a tough life. But compared to high school graduates, dropouts
as a group have lower incomes, higher rates of unemployment and
substance abuse, greater chance of being arrested and imprisoned, and
higher likelihood of needing public welfare assistance.
Davis makes it clear that the Dropout Prevention Guide offers no magic
formulas for keeping every student in school; the problem is much too
complex. Rather, he recommends the kinds of policies and programs — and,
above all, the attitudes — that have been shown to help prevent
"One key is the willingness to be flexible to meet the needs of students
who might require a different schedule or a different way of meeting
academic, social and/or behavioral objectives," Davis says.
"That doesn't mean letting
the student off easy. People often interpret dropout prevention programs
as a watering down of the curriculum, but that's not the case. The
programs that are most effective provide students with reasonable
challenges and achievable goals. The students are respected; they are
asked to be accountable."
At the heart of effective
dropout prevention efforts are strong personal connections and
relationships between students and school personnel, Davis says.
superintendent and principal of the K–12 Forest Hills Consolidated
School in Jackman, Maine, has taken Davis' graduate-level course,
Students at Risk and Their Families, and has attended the Dropout
Prevention Institute, held every summer at UMaine.
Through the years, Curtis has
adopted strategies that Davis advocates for keeping students in school.
And while it might be just a coincidence, in most years, not a single
student drops out in Jackman.
"Bill has made a wonderful
difference for people like me," he says.
In Maine, as throughout the country, students who chronically
struggle with schoolwork or live in extreme poverty are much more likely
to leave school before graduating. Also at high risk are students who
experience difficulty adjusting to the conventional school structure and
programs, as well as students with disabilities or chaotic home lives,
or those who have babies of their own.
In 2003, the most recent year
reported, the national high school dropout rate was 4 percent a year. In
the Northeast, the rate was 3.6 percent.
The dropout rate in Maine for
the 2004–05 school year was
2.8 percent, with 1,739 students leaving school. However, Davis says it
is important to recognize that student dropout rates tend to
substantially underestimate the percentage of students who drop out.
Nearly 2,000 dropouts a year
are a lot to lose, says Shelley Reed of the Maine Department of
Education, who specializes in the areas of truancy, dropouts and
alternative education. But that number might well be larger if not for
Davis' two decades of research and recommended strategies for keeping
them in school.
"He has been the No. 1
champion for at-risk kids in the state of Maine," she says. "He raises
the consciousness and provides the solid information to point people in
education in the right direction."
For example, Davis cites research findings that children who are held
back and made to repeat a grade — even an early grade — are much less
likely to finish high school.
"And more than one retention
almost guarantees that a student will eventually drop out," he writes in
the Dropout Prevention Guide. "Given the strong accountability
provisions of both No Child Left Behind and Maine's System of Learning
Results, increasing pressures exist to retain students."
The transition from middle school to high school is particularly
difficult for some students, both academically and socially. Students
are most likely to fall behind in ninth grade, where course failure is
the single strongest predictor for eventually dropping out.
Pregnancy also is high on the
list. Having a child can permanently derail plans for finishing high
school and maybe going on to college. But for some girls already at high
risk for dropping out, pregnancy gives them a reason to get their lives
back on track.
"I've never seen a teen mom
who didn't want to be a good mother," says Jana Burgoyne, who teaches
pregnant, parenting and other at-risk students at the Maine Children's
Home in Waterville. "They all want to get their education so they can be
proud for their child."
While Davis is a great source
of information and insight for special education and alternative
schoolteachers, Burgoyne says he probably is even more valuable to the
"regular ed" teachers who take his course or attend his summer
"He helps you understand what
some kids' lives are like and the difficulties they have to deal with at
home, things that most of us probably can't even imagine," Burgoyne
says. "He realizes that it's a miracle if they come to school at all. I
think teachers who are exposed to Bill have a whole different
understanding, level of compassion and ability to be flexible."
Davis reminds us that we
can't afford not to offer special programs or other support for at-risk
students, Burgoyne says, "because the costs of those kids not completing
school and becoming contributors to society are a lot greater, and not
Davis taught middle school before earning his doctorate and
joining the UMaine faculty in 1968. His teaching and research have
focused on special and alternative education, and school psychology. In
the 1980s, as he worked with teachers and parents of children with
special needs, he became aware of the high dropout rate in that
population of students. That led to his interest in dropouts in general.
The conclusions he has drawn
about why students drop out and what is needed to keep them in school
are based on extensive scholarship and research, both academic and
observational. Through the years, he has gotten to know hundreds of
dropouts and would-be dropouts, visiting many of them in their homes.
"Bill is so good with young
people because he doesn't judge them; he respects them," Burgoyne says.
By law, every school in Maine
is required to have a dropout prevention committee. The Dropout
Prevention Guide offers advice on the structure and function of these
committees, and on creating local dropout prevention plans. The guide
also analyzes a number of different dropout prevention strategies,
including early childhood education, reading and writing programs,
monitoring and tutoring.
Sometimes, just one such
somebody is all it takes. For Jeff, who graduated from high school in
June 2005, that person was a social studies teacher he called Mr. B.
"I thought about dropping out
many, many times, and I almost did. Mr. B. just kept talking to me and
convinced me to stay. I'm happy that I did," he says."
by Dick Broom
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.