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High Schools, Districts Work to Boost Graduation Rates Higher

Experts recommend that educators focus their efforts on students who show early signs of dropping out.


Experts say students who create meaningful relationships with teachers are more likely to succeed.

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The nationwide high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent – the highest in American history.

That's what a new study released by the U.S. Department of Education revealed last month. 

But while more students are graduating high school than ever, the hundreds of thousands of students who drop out each year are more likely to be subject to a lifetime of poverty and lack of opportunity. 

Prevention, providing alternative paths to graduation and community support are the keys to ensure that all students graduate, education experts say.

In Iowa, where the four-year high school graduation rate hovers just under 90 percent, education experts say dropping out happens over time and that leaders should focus on identifying at-risk students early, such as by looking at attendance records, to prevent dropouts.

“Obviously, if you could catch kids when they start to miss school, early in that stage and really actively pursue them coming to school, you’re much more likely to keep them in school,” says Rita Martens, a consultant for the the Iowa Department of Education who deals with curriculum and standards.

[Learn about why high school students are dropping out.]

Martens says that Iowa school districts have focused on helping at-risk students graduate by pairing students with adult mentors, developing programs that allow students to make up credits and creating alternative high school programs, among other initiatives. 

“We’ve had some really strong alternative programming in the state, where students who are at risk of dropping out are placed in an alternative school setting,” she says. “There they usually have really small classes and a heavy emphasis is placed on social support in addition to the academic support given to kids.”

[Find out how pregnancy and parenthood are causing teens to drop out.]

Brian Ricca, the superintendent of Montpelier Public Schools in Vermont, a state which also regularly has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, says that students who develop meaningful relationships with teachers are more likely to succeed. However, he stresses that students need to feel like what they are learning is relevant to them in order to stay engaged.

“I think we provide a thoughtful, rigorous curriculum that is being more and more infused with what are being called the 21st century skills of problem-solving, of prevalence and of risk,” he says. “Through relevance we try to make what we do content-wise important and as real world as we can so students are not turned off by what we’re offering.”

Martens echoes Ricca’s thoughts that if students feel like their teachers and community care about them, they are more likely to graduate.

She says that Iowa has the advantage of having many small districts, some with 700 students or fewer, and that those communities make sure that students understand the cost of dropping out.

“It’s kind of a cultural thing in our smaller towns in Iowa to make sure all kids get through school,” she says. “It’s almost seen as a loss to the community when someone doesn’t graduate.”

But change in culture takes time and education leaders should realize that there is no quick fix, she says.

[Read about how volunteers in Iowa are re-enrolling dropouts.]

Susan Walkup, an education consultant for the Iowa Department of Education who deals with dropout prevention, says the simplest strategies are often the most effective.

“Some of the best dropout preventions out there are having high quality teachers, having great core curriculum and providing a positive culture and environment,” she says. “Those are things we expect for all kids.”

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