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.