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Course correction

Early warning indicators flag problems so that schools can put students back on track for graduation.
  • elisabeth hailu
    Harvey Finkle

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It’s 2 p.m. at Vare-Washington Elementary School in South Philadelphia, and many of the students are scattering throughout the building, headed for the reading and math intervention sessions that will take up the final 30 minutes of their day.

Elisabeth Hailu, a special education teacher, tutors a group of 7th and 8th graders in reading. The short-term goal might be to work on, say, phonics, but there is also a long-range goal: Keep the kids in the system through graduation.

At Vare, students are assigned to groups with the help of the Early Warning Indicators report, introduced in the Philadelphia School District seven years ago to help identify potential dropouts.

Researchers mined student data about grades, attendance, and discipline to pinpoint warning signs so that intervention could begin. The original study found that the likelihood of dropping out increased dramatically for students who failed one or more major subjects, recorded an out-of-school suspension, or had poor attendance.

The students that Hailu was working with were flagged this way. And she says she has seen the benefits of having students selected based on their individual needs.

“I’ve seen improvements already,” she said.

Zack Duberstein, principal of Vare-Washington, said that students in Hailu’s group this year, although still reading well below grade level, have made as much progress in three months as they would otherwise have been expected to make in six months, based on the STAR reading assessment.

“They’re in rotating classes, so I don’t know how they’re doing on science, in math,” Hailu said. “And I’m looking pretty intensely at behavior issues.”

Overall, the educators look for combinations of indicators.

“The behavior stuff is right in your face,” said Tim Adkins, the counselor at Paul L. Dunbar Promise Academy. The attendance data, on the other hand, “can easily slip through the cracks.”

Adkins said that when a student is sent to him for behavior issues, it’s helpful to quickly see whether he or she is also having academic problems that could be related.

“It’s a safety net, to see that no kids are falling through,” said Duberstein, who heads one of 12 K-8 schools working closely with the Philadelphia Education Fund to develop systems to address early warning indicators.

“Now we have a systematic way of picking the kids who need intervention,” he said. Using these indicators “is a way to catch the student who might be suffering silently. Maybe their attitude is OK, but their grades are suffering. When you’re dealing with a school of 400-plus kids, you need a comprehensive way of looking at your entire school population.”

6th grade is key

  • zack duberstein and liz bechtel
    Harvey Finkle

The report is based on research completed a decade ago by Johns Hopkins University and the education fund to help spot students in grades 6-8 who are most likely to drop out of high school.

Sixth grade was considered particularly important because that is where students generally start moving from class to class and teacher to teacher and where they often start showing behaviors that end up with their dropping out.

Principals, teachers and other educators say they find the report helpful. But pinpointing who needs help and having the resources to actually provide it are two different things.

For instance, Duberstein said his school desperately needs another special education teacher so that he can add more intervention sessions. 

And when it comes time for planning sessions to talk about student interventions, in many cases “the District doesn’t have the money,” said Paul Adorno, a senior adviser at Philadelphia Education Fund and one of the report’s original architects. Getting the right kind of help to students “depends on [having] time for meeting, time to talk about the kids.”

At the middle school level, such collaboration on the needs of  individual students is especially critical.

“The 6th, 7th, 8th [graders] are going from class to class,” Adorno said. “The art teacher may be seeing a different side of the kid.”

He noted that the District’s high teacher vacancy rates and lack of substitutes this year have made it even harder to hold these kinds of meetings because there is often no one available to cover for teachers attending.

District officials, however, say that the report will enable principals and teachers to work smarter and stretch available resources by spotting potential dropouts early in the school year, or even before it starts.

The warning signs

The researchers on whose work the report was based identified four early, specific “flags” that mark a student as a potential dropout:

  • A school-attendance rate of 80 percent or less in 6th grade

  • Failing math in 6th grade

  • Failing English in 6th grade

  • Receiving an out-of-school suspension in 6th grade

Although thresholds have since changed, the research was based on a cohort of about 13,000 Philadelphia students who were followed from the 1995-96 school year, when they enrolled in 6th grade, to the 2003-04 school year, one year after their expected graduation.

“Overall,” the researchers said, “using our final set of four 6th grade warning flags, 60 percent of the students who will not graduate from the school system within one year of expected graduation can be identified. “

Even students with just one flag have a dramatically decreased chance of graduating. The graduation rate for those students was 25 percent, compared with the current District average of 65 percent. Additional flags reduce the likelihood of graduation even more, to 7 percent with four flags.

Picking up the little things

The indicators “were invaluable,” said Terry Pearsall-Hargett, who retired in June as principal of Grover Washington Middle School in Olney.

“They’re the driving factor. … Kids that did poorly on the indicators were automatically assigned to tutorials and afterschool study sessions.”

In addition to the indicators, Pearsall-Hargett said, she used the Success Highways student self-assessment, which measures resiliency, as a guide to identify the students most in need of targeted interventions.

At Grover Washington, students selected by using these two measures received mentoring through City Year, a nonprofit that works with at-risk students as part of the Diplomas Now initiative.

“They filled the gap that, because of the District budgets, we didn’t have the resources for,” Pearsall-Hargett said.

City Year relies heavily on AmeriCorps members ages 18-25 who might follow a student throughout the school day.

They pick up the little things that the teachers might not know, Pearsall-Hargett said.

“Was someone in the family incarcerated? Is the heat on in their house? The kids sit in on meetings where they discuss their personal goals.”

Darryl Bundridge, City Year’s Philadelphia executive director, says the agency is in 11 District schools this year and three charters, working mostly with student in grades 3-9.

All the schools serve predominantly low-income students of color.

City Year says it gave individualized math support to more than 1,400 students, moving 62 percent with a D or F in math to a C or better. It says that almost 1,500 students received reading support, with 64 percent with a D or F in English moving to a C or better.

Getting a jump on problems

School District officials do not have exact data on how many teachers access the Early Warning Indicators report annually, but they believe the numbers are increasing.

Jan Tong, an educational technology specialist with the District,  said that sessions on the report are held twice a year in every school and that the reception has been favorable. 

“We hear the schools are using it more and more, but it’s a cultural shift,” he said.

The report combines existing data in one document: attendance, test scores, grades, and behavior indicators, and English language learner and special education status. Teachers can get a report for their class, principals for their entire school.

“I can see what kids are at risk of dropping out even before school starts,” Tong said.

“I might have 10 students who are two years behind in reading level. What can I do now to plan for them? There’s no reason to wait a month or two into the school year when I can identify them right now.”

And because the Early Warning Indicators report can easily be exported as an Excel spreadsheet, teachers and principals can modify it to add other categories or do different analyses. Vare-Washington does this regularly, using the STAR reading and math assessments monthly and incorporating them in the report.

Tong and Melanie Harris, chief information officer for the District, said that the next step will be taking the knowledge gained from the report – identifying potential dropouts – and then finding out which interventions worked best for them.

“How are we intervening, and what are the results?” Tong said. “That’s where the benefit is.”

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Paul Jablow

@PaulJ1940
Paul Jablow is a freelance writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who contributes regularly to the Notebook.