Dropout warning signs show up early

EducDropoutStudy101309Just 108 Colorado schools account for 70 percent of all dropouts in the state, according to a new report conducted for the Colorado Graduates Initiative by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The study, titled “Understanding the Dropout Problem and Mobilizing to Meet the Graduation Challenge,” focused on five Colorado school districts, Adams 12, Aurora, Denver, Jefferson County and Pueblo City.

The report found that behavioral factors such as absenteeism, failing grades and bad behavior are stronger indicators of the likelihood of dropping out than are traditional demographic factors such as ethnicity and family income. Johns Hopkins researchers have been in the forefront of work on behavioral factors and how they surface in middle school and at the beginning of high school.

The five districts were invited to participate because they’re among the largest in the state and have some of the highest numbers of dropouts. The study looked at 2006-07 dropouts.

Among the findings:

  • More than three of four dropouts had failed one or more semester classes in the 9th grade.
  • In four of the five districts, a large majority of dropouts had patterns of chronic absenteeism.
  • Nearly half of dropouts in four of five districts had been suspended at least once in the previous four years.

The study also examined students who were 9th graders in 2003-04 and so could have dropped out between 2003 and 2007. For those students, researchers found that the percentage of students who graduated on time declined noticeably with each semester class failure in 9th grade, and only 22 to 29 percent of students with one or more failures graduated on time.

“It’s a slippery slope. Even one semester course failure means a student is less likely to graduate on time from high school,” Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, in a statement. The Campaign and Colorado Youth for Change and the Partnership for Families and Children are partners in the Colorado Graduates Initiative. The study was paid for by the Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations.

Risk indicators also were found among middle school students in the five districts. “A third of 6th grade students are exhibiting at least one of the early warning indicators (poor attendance, behavior problems, course failure) in two of the districts, and as many as half appear to be at risk in another district,” according to the study’s executive summary.

The Initiative hopes that the report, by more closely identifying where the dropout problem is concentrated, will make it easier to identify and serve potential dropouts with successful interventions designed to reduce the number of failing students, decrease absenteeism and provide help to at-risk middle school students.

The report calls on districts to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of existing policies and interventions, build agreement among administrators and faculty on use of research-based practices to reduce the dropout rate and to create schoolwide programs and support structures to implement such practices.

Colorado Department of Education dropout statistics for the 2007-08 school year reported that 15,524 students dropped out in grades 7 through 12, 3.8 percent on a base of 411,439 students.

Eleven districts had more than 300 dropouts each that year, for a total of 9,674, or 62 percent of all dropouts. They were:

  • Adams 12 – 902, 4.6 percent
  • Aurora – 1,424, 8.2 percent
  • Cherry Creek – 749, 2.9 percent
  • Colorado Springs 11 – 657, 4 percent
  • Denver – 2,591, 7.4 percent
  • Greeley – 346, 3.9 percent
  • Jefferson County – 1,430, 3.2 percent
  • Mesa 51 – 474, 4.3 percent
  • Poudre – 347, 2.6 percent
  • Pueblo City – 435, 4.7 percent
  • St. Vrain – 319, 3.7 percent

(The tiny Vilas district in southeastern Colorado reported 1,802 dropouts, or 19.2 percent. That’s because Vilas runs an extensive online program used by many students who live elsewhere.)

The Initiative will release two related reports, on rural and on female dropouts, Friday at the Colorado Dropouts Summit for School District Leaders, co-hosted by Governor Bill Ritter, America’s Promise, State Farm and the Initiative. The event will be at Arvada High School.

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Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations are among the sponsors of Education News Colorado.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.