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Personal Intervention


Personal Intervention
Strong connections between students and school personnel are key to dropout prevention efforts


Keys to dropout prevention
The Maine Dropout Prevention Guide from the Institute for the Study of Students at Risk lists the essentials of a successful dropout prevention program.

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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 superintendents.

"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 dropouts.
"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.

Richard Curtis, superintendent and principal of the K12 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 200405 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 institute.

"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 just financially."

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
January-February, 2007

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