If you knew you could identify a 12-year-old child in danger of dropping out of high school, what would you do?
In May, Project U-Turn released "A Promise Worth Keeping: Advancing the High School Graduation Rate in Philadelphia," a review of the collective effort to significantly boost the number of Philadelphia's students completing high school. The report, an update to one that was released nine years ago, examines recent graduation and dropout rates in great detail.
Citywide, the four-year graduation rate for the freshman class of 2008-09 was 64 percent, an increase of 12 percentage points from five years earlier. The dropout rate fell four points from 29 percent in the same period.
Although the improvement in the graduation rate rightly gets attention, we cannot forget about all the students who never get to experience the joys of graduation day and the many rewards that follow. The dropout rate remains a national and local crisis. Now is not the time to relax our efforts or lose focus.
The majority of students who drop out do so in high school. But we can identify these at-risk students as early as the 6th grade, thanks to research conducted in 2004 by the Philadelphia Education Fund and Johns Hopkins University. Researchers found that students in grades 6-8 who have one or more of the "early warning indicators" listed below have only a 15 percent chance of graduating high school:
• Low attendance (less than 80 percent).
• Poor behavior (out-of-school suspensions).
• Course failure in math or English.
Struggling students need to be identified and helped before they begin high school. Schools can use these warning signs to understand and target student needs and apply research-based interventions to ensure that at-risk students get back on track. Doing this would be a big step forward. Many schools, though, still aren’t equipped to do this well.
If these signs are visible, then why aren’t more people responding to them? The answer has to do with the complexity of the language in question, the language of data.
The School District of Philadelphia, the Ed Fund, and other youth-serving entities, like Project U-Turn and Philadelphia Academies, have tried to make educators feel more comfortable with data. But learning how to access, analyze, and apply data is challenging. It requires both individually developing educators and changing the culture in and across schools.
To address this challenge, the Ed Fund and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey joined forces through the Early Warning Response System. This system, which helps hundreds of middle-grade teachers, principals, and counselors to use the language of data, improves school attendance and behavior systems and facilitates community partnerships to address early warning signs.
True change will not come until the language of data becomes the common vernacular of educators and second nature to school environments. To encourage this shift, educators must be allowed to speak in this language with peers and work together on accessing and applying key student data for research-based interventions. This important time for educators to come together to discuss student data and interventions is usually during common planning time.
As the name suggests, common planning time refers to a scheduled period in the school day for school staff to communicate, collaborate, and plan. Unfortunately, this time is becoming less and less common. Even schools that do schedule it often lack sufficient resources and staff, leading them to prioritize other school issues. As a result, schools either de-emphasize student intervention work during collaborative time or drop common planning time altogether.
Time for educators to collaborate on supporting our most at-risk students must be sacrosanct. In order for this shift in priorities and resources to happen, schools and local policymakers must not be the only parties who champion these efforts. Our public officials in Philadelphia and Harrisburg must also make room.
Schools, families, and other education stakeholders all have a role in dropout prevention and a duty to learn the language of data. It is our belief that this will lead to a positive and active data culture in schools and an increase in the number of students on track to graduation. More schools would be equipped to answer the question: What would you do if you knew which students were most at risk of dropping out?”
For more information, please contact Icy Jones, the Philadelphia Education Fund’s director of educational innovations, or Ami Patel Hopkins, vice president of teaching, learning, and innovation.