signs of high school academic woes can be seen in students as
young as 11 and addressed, researchers say.
By Allison Sherry, The Denver Post, December 1, 2008
Middle schoolers who fail a single math or reading class are
much more prone to drop out of high school than those who do
well, according to some of the most sophisticated research into
dropouts ever conducted in five Colorado school districts.
The study, which mimics trends found in Philadelphia and Boston,
followed dropouts in Denver, Aurora, Jefferson County, Pueblo
and Adams County. The districts churn out almost half of the
state's dropouts each year.
Among those who left school in these five districts, researchers
looked at behavior records, grades and attendance as far back as
The numbers show that parents and teachers should take seriously
student failures in core subjects even when they're as young as
11 years old.
"It's a commitment at the early stages. If a student gives off a
warning sign, you make it someone's job that they notice that,"
said Martha Abele MacIver, a Johns Hopkins University research
scientist studying the dropout data for Colorado. "I don't think
it takes that many more resources; it's a commitment to do
The data in the five districts are mostly still incomplete and
should be finalized this spring. Pueblo is the only district
openly sharing what it has so far.
Researchers found that 52 percent of Pueblo's ninth-graders who
were absent 18 or more days ended up leaving school altogether
before graduation. Almost half of all dropouts had at least one
suspension in four years. And 88 percent of all dropouts had at
least one F in ninth grade.
The study also found that almost one-fourth of current
sixth-graders in Pueblo had an F on their transcript.
Pueblo school administrators are already tackling policy changes
to make the school district friendlier to struggling students.
For example, a suspended student used to be allowed to make up
only 50 percent of the coursework assigned during suspension
days. Now, district officials will allow suspended students to
make up all of the work they missed.
Among Gov. Bill Ritter's top education priorities is to pare the
state's high school dropout rate in half. Roughly 30 percent of
the state's high school students now leave school without
Group hopes for action
The Johns Hopkins researchers were brought to Colorado last year
by private education reformers after Ritter's education task
force disbanded its committee focusing on the dropout problem.
The education reform group, including advisers at the Colorado
Children's Campaign and the Donnell Kay Foundation, decided to
take on the problem themselves and try to fix it.
What they hope comes from the Johns Hopkins work is a strong
will from the governor's office — as well as a little funding
from the legislature — to give schools incentives to focus on
troubled kids when they're younger.
"We hope there is action at all levels," said Alex Medler, a
policy adviser at the Colorado Children's Campaign, which is
partially funding the $220,000 project. "We need to know what
the kids are doing at a young age and say that's not OK. Maybe a
parent could make that change in the child's life."
Medler thinks districts should alert parents to dropout warning
State Education Commissioner Dwight Jones wants to start an
office of dropout prevention and devote a state employee full
time to "paying attention to it every day."
"Is there a way to get a lot more serious about the data?" he
said. "I think the state has some obligation to parents and to
kids that there is some accountability in the schools, that kids
are attending schools where they have a chance to be
At the governor's office, a massive data-sharing system is
underway to allow the state education department, the Department
of Corrections and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education
to share information about students and where they end up, said
Matt Gianneschi, Ritter's education-policy adviser.
Gianneschi said once the Johns Hopkins research is complete,
state officials have questions to answer: What does the state do
to try to lower the dropout rate? What do school districts need
from the state?
"This is a huge priority for us, but we don't know the ways in
which to go about it yet," he said. "Maybe you fund schools in a
different way. We're really looking for our own superintendents
and our own teachers to tell us what works."
Something school districts say they already need is a place for
dropouts to go once they've decided to return to school.
In Aurora, this is a three- room schoolhouse called the Options
School, where dropouts and those expelled from traditional
schools take missing classes at their own pace in online
In its first six months of existence, the school has no more
slots. It will graduate nine dropouts this month and another 22
Striking to Steve Dobo, who helped find kids to go to the
Options School through his nonprofit Colorado Youth for a
Change, is how many students leave school close to graduation.
In Pueblo, 76 of 367 dropouts in the 2006-07 school year needed
five or fewer credits to get a diploma.
"That's just heartbreaking," Dobo said.
Jose Rodriguez will graduate from the Aurora alternative school
next year after dropping out of Aurora Central High School two
He thought school was boring. And he blames himself for getting
mixed up in the wrong crowd and then falling so far behind in
his classes that he had no incentive to start going again.
He drove a produce truck and worked at Denver International
Airport before deciding to get his diploma so he could
eventually start community college.
"I have choices," the 20-year-old Rodriguez said. "I can always
work in these bad jobs, or I can go back to school and do
something that will get me up, pull me up."
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