As many as 1.3 million students in the U.S. drop out of high school every year. Their reasons for leaving vary – some need to work and support their families, others unexpectedly start a family of their own and some simply miss too much school and feel they can't catch up.
For Erin Byford, who dropped out of school when she was 17, it was a boy.
"He was kind of controlling and I thought that maybe he could take care of me if I dropped out," says Byford, an Iowa native.
That didn't pan out, she says, and when the relationship went south, she moved back in with her mom.
Byford, now 19, says she thought about going back to school a lot. But the stigma of being a dropout kept her from turning those thoughts into actions, she says, until volunteers from Waterloo Community School District's Reconnect to Graduate program stopped by her house in September.
"They knocked on the door and talked to my stepdad and left a piece of paper," Byford says. "I saw it lying around and I just wanted to get it done. I really want to go to college."
[Learn more about dropout prevention efforts.]
Waterloo re-enrolled 60 students as of Oct. 1, thanks to the volunteers' efforts, according to a recent article in local paper The Courier. Byford was one of them.
Reconnect to Graduate volunteers go door-to-door, encouraging students who dropped out to return to school and explaining their options, says Ellen Vanderloo, who runs the program. A similar initiative in Des Moines, Iowa sparked the idea for the door-knocking campaign, she says.
"I really like the idea of personally going out and making a connection with students and families," she says.
Teachers and counselors are not the only ones making that connection, either. Former students, area residents and even the city's mayor and his wife volunteer, Vanderloo says. Spanish, Bosnian and Marshallese interpreters also join the group, ensuring someone can speak to families in their native language.
[Discover how public-private partnerships can prevent dropouts.]
Waterloo's program is one of several district-led campaigns across the country aimed at re-enrolling students who dropped out. Midland Independent School District in Texas holds an annual Recovery Walk, where educators and community members spend a Saturday afternoon visiting students' homes.
Volunteers talk to students about why they dropped out and ways for them to finish their degrees, including alternative and online programs, says Deborah Acosta, the district's dropout prevention/recovery and at-risk coordinator.
"The students did not know that they could come back to school," says Acosta. "I was shocked. We need to make sure that's getting out there."
Making the transition back to high school can be difficult, Acosta says. Some students were kicked out of their homes and need to work to survive; others can't afford to keep their water on, much less buy school clothes and supplies, she says.
"We can't think these are the Beaver Cleaver days anymore," she says. "Times have changed."
[Read more about high school graduation rates.]
To accommodate those changes, Midland offers flexible scheduling and credit recovery programs, which allow students to finish a course they started but didn't pass in as little as six weeks.
Not every student who re-enrolls will make it to graduation, but the district's efforts are making a difference. Midland's dropout rate decreased from 16 percent for the class of 2008, when the Recovery Walk started, to 9.9 percent for the class of 2012.
"I was ecstatic. I was jumping around doing cartwheels when we went down below 10 percent," Acosta says. "Of course, obviously, our next goal is going to be below 5 percent."
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