Reengaging Out-of-School Youth in Rural School Districts: What Do We Know?

Some school districts serve thousands of students, while others serve hundreds, or less than a hundred. Some school districts have multiple elementary, middle, and high schools, while some have one for all grades. Some school districts have superintendents with very narrow and defined roles, while some have superintendents who coach the basketball team. It’s probably safe to say, no two school districts are exactly alike.

Yet as we continue to get to know and understand the state, and look at students who dropout from that perspective, the more we come to understand both the differences and the similarities. The differences, moreover, are often hard to understand because they can’t be compiled into a statistic easily. Differences require conversation and a lot of local perspective. Yet we have found similarities too. One similarity we think is true is why a student drops out.

For example, the literature usually reframes these reasons according to the following categories or factors: (1) pushout, (2) pullout and (3) fallout. A student who is pushed out encounters difficult or adverse circumstances within the school. This could mean a lack of school support, or an especially punitive attendance policy. A pullout factor could be parenting, the need to obtain full-time employment or challenges within the family. The third factor, fallout, occurs when a student does not make adequate progress and is behind academically. As a result, the student can become disillusioned or does not fully understand the implications of leaving school.

While these are general categories, we have consistently found them to be true. We also think that reframing it this way, and placing the responsibility across systems and communities, is also true of any youth.

An interesting study, called “Rural and Urban High School Dropout Rates: Are they Different?” shows that rural and urban students are not that different in terms of achievement and that “gender, family assets, the presence of biological parents, and maternal attributes appear to be the main determinates of graduation.” In other words, when those attributes are the same, rather the student lives in a rural or an urban community, graduation and dropout rates are very similar.

The Colorado Department of Education, moreover, recognizes five different settings:

  • Denver Metro:Districts located within the Denver-Boulder standard metropolitan
  • Urban-Suburban: Districts which comprise the state’s major population centers outside of the Denver metropolitan area and their immediate surrounding suburbs.
  • Outlying City: Districts in which most pupils live in population centers of seven thousand persons but less than thirty thousand persons.
  • Outlying Town: Districts in which most pupils live in population centers in excess of one thousand persons but less than seven thousand persons.
  • Rural County:Districts with no population centers in excess of one thousand persons and characterized by sparse widespread populations.

The last three (outlying city, town and rural county) when taken together, represent about 17 percent of the student population, whereas about 54 percent of all students live in the Denver Metro Region, 27 percent live in the urban-suburban region, while 2.7 percent fall into an “other” school district, something like an online school.

Interestingly, when you compare the number of school districts across the state, a very different picture emerges—as anyone familiar with Colorado knows. 84 percent of all the school districts are in rural areas. Conversely, only 16 percent of all school districts are not rural! Many of the larger counties have one or two school districts, while rural counties often have multiple school districts miles apart from each other.

As far as students go, especially among those who dropout, the general trends found through the state, the entire country, and in rural areas are generally the same. For example, across Colorado, 59 percent of the dropouts are male whereas 41 percent are female. In rural areas, the number for males is actually a little higher with an average of 64 percent and 36 percent for females.

Another consistent trend is that students of color are over-represented within the dropout population. For example, students of color in Colorado make up 45.7 percent of all students, whereas they make up 65 percent of the dropout population. This difference is most noted in the Metro Denver area where students of color are 49.4 percent of the population and 72 percent of the dropout population. While not quite as much of a difference, but still concerning, students of color within rural areas are 38 percent of the student population, and make up half or 50 percent of the dropout population.

While it is helpful to look at data and draw some conclusions, it is equally important to understand the entire community picture. Looking for commonalities is helpful, but so is understanding the local perspective. The data does tell us some things. When it shows similar trends across the state and the nation, it suggests larger structural concerns. Yet the data ultimately needs to be informed and interpreted by people from those communities with the goal of helping all youth graduate on time. Indeed, the solutions won’t come from the data, but from what people can do.

Third-Grade Literacy: A Key Dropout Indicator

literacyWhat makes education so powerful is its ability to build on what came before it. Curriculum is carefully designed to align with child development and to move towards greater complexity and depth in every subject. For this reason—and as many advocates claim—education begins the moment a child is born. Each development stage requires the right amount of input and experiences in order to move onto the next. Early childhood education is every bit as important as high school biology. Each step is necessary for the ultimate goal: graduation.

Likewise, dropping out of school is not something that happens suddenly or on a whim. It is often the culmination of a long line of challenges and struggles within the education process where a critical step was missed, making all the following grades a challenge. If this is combined with poverty and other barriers out of the student’s control—the cycle becomes clear.

A pivotal year for all students and their future success is the third grade. While third grade is not an absolute dividing line, there is plenty of research and evidence that shows children around this age begin to develop significant reading skills. A profound cognitive shift begins to take place as children move beyond recognizing letters and understanding words to a fuller comprehension of the text.  A common refrain is that children “learn to read” until the third grade. After the third grade, children begin to “read to learn.” Reading, then, becomes the foundation of all future education.

In fact, one study, Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, showed that children who are falling behind in reading have greater chances of dropping out later. This study found that students “who do not read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers”. What makes this so alarming is that this only describes students who are not proficient. Students who were significantly behind are six times more likely to leave school early and not graduate. The study concludes that a student who is behind in their reading and living in poverty face enormous odds towards graduation. For these students, failing to graduate rose to 35 percent compared to 16 percent.

In Colorado, the 2016 Kids Count report states“…58 percent of all fourth-graders were reading below  grade level in 2015, according to the CMAS [Colorado Measures of Academic Success] English language arts assessment”. In the report, a map shows that rural communities along the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the state have the highest levels of students not at grade level.

The 2016 Kids Count also shows a concerning association with reading level and income. Citing results from the National Assessment of Education Progress, the report describes, “The income-based achievement gap in Colorado is widening over time. Between 2003 and 2015, the gap in reading proficiency levels between low-income and higher-income students grew by 27 percent.”

Taking both of these things into account suggests enormous consequences for the future of Colorado. Yet there is still time and fortunately the issue is clearly understood by people within the education system. Former Lt. Governor Joe Garcia did a tremendous job bringing the issue to the forefront and amazing programming has emerged, most notably the Colorado Reading Corps program.

While third grade seems really far away for a program like ours, which works with students who have left school as teenagers, we recognize that making sure a student’s reading skills are at grade level or higher is one of the best dropout-prevention approaches. It’s ideal to keep students moving forward with their studies by providing the right support at the right time.

Chronic Absenteeism Part II: Time and Commitment

untitled-1After an overwhelming response to our last post about chronic absenteeism, we thought we would dive a little deeper into the subject. Identifying students who are experiencing chronic absenteeism—which is most often described as missing 10 percent or more of school—is relatively straightforward. As many school administrators know, it’s also one of the most powerful early warning indicators out there. Yet it does require staff time, knowledge of a school’s database system, some Excel skills, and an ongoing commitment.

Chronic absenteeism is different than attendance in that it focuses on individual students and looks at all absences, whether they are excused or not. In addition, most attendance systems, like average daily attendance, look at attendance in the aggregate, and as a result, some students can be missed.

For example, Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Bryrnes make this case in one of the most widely quoted reports on the subject: The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools. In this report, a powerful case is made against using average daily attendance and for looking at individual school records instead. For example, as the report clarifies, “it is possible for a school to have 90 percent average daily attendance and still have as many as 40 percent of its students chronically absent because on different days different students are in school.”

At present, many organizations, as well as the federal government, are encouraging states in partnership with schools and school districts, to adopt chronic absenteeism as one of their accountability measures in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind, and was signed into law on December 10th, 2015. ESSA provides more flexibility to schools by requiring each state to use five indicators of success with the fifth indicator being left to the discretion of the state. Each state is required to create a plan and provide it to the federal government next year. Colorado is currently creating their plan and their efforts are available on the state Department of Education’s website.

We’ve found that monitoring chronic absenteeism on a weekly basis provides a wealth of insight into patterns and trends among students. Our current approach is to:

  1. Pull a weekly attendance report from Infinite Campus or PowerSchool (Colorado school databases) each Monday
  2. Drop the data into a spreadsheet
  3. Rank each student into one of three attendance tiers:
    1. Red (60 percent or less)
    2. Yellow (61 percent to 79 percent)
    3. Green (80 percent or more)
  4. Examine changes between weeks and student’s rate for the entire school year

Because chronic absenteeism looks at all absences, both excused and unexcused, we have to make sure we’re using the right attendance report, and that our formulas match the number of possible school days for the week.  This information is then moved into a relatively simple and straightforward report that our staff and AmeriCorps members use to prioritize their time and focus for the week.

So far, we’ve found success with the model. Having a direct view of who is attending and who is not attending, provides clarity. This not only helps with prioritizing, but it also helps staff and AmeriCorps members quickly identify who is at risk, who is slipping and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. For us, it’s another data-driven tool for improving education among vulnerable students.

Excused or Not, What Chronic Absenteeism Means for a Student’s Future

empty-chair-resize1Students cannot learn if they are absent from school. A student who is not attending school is considered “truant” and is subject to the laws and school regulations that address this behavior. Both attendance and truancy rates are reported by the Colorado Department of Education and can be found on the SchoolView data center.  Yet there are limitations to the definition of truancy, which is why chronic absenteeism is emerging as another concern.

The main distinction is that chronic absenteeism places an emphasis on missing any days of school regardless if the days are excused or not. Truancy does not factor in excused days. “Excused” is sometimes different based on local school district practice and administrators. What is more, high school age students can—legally—stop attending school on their seventeenth birthday in Colorado. There are, clearly, implications to this. Chronic absenteeism considers all students until they graduate.

So what is chronic absenteeism? In short, it is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year or at least 15 days. Once again, it makes no difference whether days were excused or not. As can be expected, chronic absenteeism “is a primary cause of low-academic achievement and a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school.” (Every Student, Every Day).

The Department of Education, utilizing information from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), goes on to say that over 6 million students in 2013-2014 missed 15 days or more, which is basically one out of every eight students or 13 percent. Yet when you look at chronic absenteeism by grade those numbers change with more and more students chronically absent at the high-school level.  This has enormous implications for our organization, and many others, which focus on engaging high school students with the purpose of graduating. Here’s the breakdown by grade:

  • 1 in 10 (10 percent) Elementary School
  • 1 in 8 (12 percent) Middle School
  • 1 in 5 (20 percent) High School

Chronic absenteeism also impacts minority students more than white students. 22.2 percent of American Indian and Pacific Islander students are impacted the most, followed by 16.4 percent of Black students, 13.3 percent of Latino/Latina students, and 12.2 percent of white students. The CRDC also shows that chronic absenteeism “spikes” for all students in high school regardless of race or ethnicity.

We are particularly interested in chronic absenteeism and how to apply this current research to our work. We are interested in it as both a prevention lens to help us keep youth in school, as well as a means of understanding our students who have left school and are now returning. Chronic absenteeism, because it looks at excused and non-excused absences, allows for a more direct identification of high-risk students. It also has enormous implications for system-involved youth who are sometimes chronically absent for reasons beyond their control.

A study from the University of Utah found that “for each year that a student is chronically absent, his or her odds of dropping out approximately double.”  So whether the student is excused or not, missing school has enormous consequences for their future.

A Juggling Act: Data, Outcomes and Youth Development

As a nonprofit in the youth development field, there are often many objectives to juggle. They often require some debate and conversation to get it right. One particular juggling act is balancing the need for data collection and outcomes with the need to remain open-minded and youth centered. That is, it’s important to approach everyone as an individual and not a “number” as it is often said. This debate recently came to light with the development of some new programming.

For example, when starting a new program, it’s truly important to allow the facts to speak. It’s important to not bring a lot of assumptions, especially those made from previous programming, about how the youth will respond. We should allow the solutions, and even the exact target population, to emerge. Individual circumstances should guide the work and this can take time. People have different needs. Every city is different. Every school is different. You can never be quite sure.

Yet it’s equally important to have a clear outcome, which will help steer things in the right direction. It’s important to have research and use the existing evidence as much as possible. It’s also necessary to consider how things will translate into numbers and how it might translate into a data system or a report, as much as no one wants to turn someone into a number.

Clearly, the roles people have play a big part in their approach and where they land in the debate. Within our organization, we recognize that we are truly fortunate to have both of these perspectives in one place. The youth, in our opinion, really benefit from a program model that has been created and analyzed utilizing multiple perspectives.

There is, however, one thing we all agree on: A strict, linear approach isn’t going to happen. The youth we support have very complex lives and it is absolutely necessary to respect their experiences and allow for a true partnership. Whatever the answer and approach ends up being, it has to retain the deepest respect for the youth. It must be broad enough to allow for all the variations, but narrow enough to provide a sufficient amount of support.

We also all agree that it takes a lot of heart to do this work. Even our most analytic, number driven people wouldn’t be here if they didn’t feel a strong connection to our mission, and more importantly, to our students. This work takes compassion and patience from everyone. It also requires courage because we have to advocate—at all levels—for students.

There is perhaps one last thing we all agree on: We have to laugh and enjoy our time with the students (and each other).

So where do we stand as an organization? In short, we’re committed to drawing from both perspectives and incorporating them into our work. What this means for us is that we have to be open and collaborative when starting something new. Communication and respect are the cornerstones. We also have to be open to growing and the occasional revision. We have to be open to a kind of cognitive diversity where different people come together with differing viewpoints and approaches.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.