“Coming Out” – Two Student Perspectives: MVP Part II

A junior at Adams City High School, Jorge is charismatic and extremely confident. Theater is his main love and he hopes to one day be an actor. His eyes are set on the future. Will LA or New York offer more opportunities? He wants to go as soon as he graduates. Living in a big city is important to him, and he can’t wait to live in one as soon as possible. He also doesn’t want to live with regret. Jorge believes in following his dreams.

Jorge is also out. He’s out to his family and he’s out within his school. Most of the students he encounters know he is gay and it hasn’t been a big deal. He likes school, for the most part, and has been able to attend and participate just like any other student.

Yet coming out for Jorge, as it probably does for many students, starts earlier than high school.

“It usually starts happening in middle school. You know, you fall for someone,” says, Jorge.

But when it first starts happening, Jorge explained, it can make you feel alone and isolated. Many young LGBTQ youth fear that if they come out, they will be kicked out of their house—and forced to be homeless. Urban Peak, an organization serving youth experiencing homelessness in the metro Denver area, says that 28 percent of the youth they serve identify as  LGBTQ. This is much higher than the general population were estimates usually range between five and ten percent.

LGBTQ youth can become desperate as they believe that they have no options. They can also feel as though there is no one who understands.

“I turned to YOUTUBE and watched videos, coming out videos. It helped me not feel alone.”

“This particular video really helped me with accepting who I am, made me feel less alone, and helped me explain to others what I was going through when words weren’t an option for my feelings at the time”:

Jorge also got into clubs where he could hang out after school. One of the first clubs he attended was the robotics club. Then he got into theater. In fact, he first came out to a group of older theater students, who put him on the spot. Made to answer the question in jest, Jorge felt he could only answer the question truthfully.

Another important club for Jorge was No Place for Hate hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. No Place for Hate is “designed to rally an entire school around the goal of creating a welcoming community committed to stopping all forms of bias and bullying.” Jorge enjoyed being part of a broader coalition aimed at making the school climate better for everyone. He thought it was more approachable than a club focused on LGBTQ students. Eventually, he became involved with both types of clubs.

GLSEN, a national organization that was founded by teachers in 1990, publish a great deal of research around LGBTQ students. Their “flagship report” called The National School Climate Survey looks at the experiences of these students and notes the successes and challenges for them within the school system. The report shows that 57.6 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe within their school. 27.0 percent said that they had been physically harassed (pushed or shoved) while 13.0 percent had been physically assaulted. According to the same survey, 3.4 Percent of LGBTQ students did not plan to finish high school. Of this group, 86.3 percent cited mental health concerns.

“Yeah, I know people who dropped out because they didn’t fit in,” Jorge explained. Leaving school because of fear of bullying or because of the inability to relate or fit in is a real concern for many LGBTQ students.

One other important support for LGBTQ students are “GSA” Clubs or Gay Straight Alliances. Like any afterschool club, a GSA is meant to bring students together around an important issue. GSA Clubs are part of a national network that extends into most colleges as well. And like any club, anyone can “sponsor” one and get them started. No two look the same, as some clubs take on broader issues, but what they have in common is that they work directly within the school to create a more accepting culture.

Another student, John Paul Zuni, attends Colorado High School Charter. John Paul loves music and is concurrently taking classes at Metropolitan State University in Denver. He would like to be a music producer someday and be in a band. Coming out wasn’t that hard for him as other people are already out within his family. In fact, when he came across the coming out videos on YouTube it was an eye-opening experience as he truly did not know what some LGBTQ youth were going through.

Last year, John Paul got involved with newly created GSA program, which was started by a Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) AmeriCorps member. Their main focus for the year was to get people to stop using the word “gay” derogatively. Their approach was to speak with teachers and other school administration and ask them to create a positive culture where using the word negatively would not be acceptable.

For the most part, John Paul says, it was a success.

“You need teachers to help,” he said.

LGBTQ students are at higher risk for dropping out of school. Because of this, CYC focuses on these students, and broadly defines them as “MVP students” or Most Vulnerable Populations of students. Depending on the support they receive at home and at school, they can also be at risk for running away and becoming homeless. CYC works with community partners to provide supports. We also work with schools to help improve school climate.

With so much happening during high school, and with the additional risks, these students need just a little more support to ensure they finish school. If they have left school early, finding the right school where they will be accepted can make all the difference to their future success as well.

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.

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.

The Rise of Colorado’s Dropout Rate

As we start the new school year, we reflect on last year’s dropout rate. After eight years of steady decline, the dropout rate in Colorado has gone up. While the percentage itself doesn’t seem like a wide swing, when you look at the raw numbers and imagine the future for each of those youth, a sense of urgency returns. Ideally we would see this number continue to go down until disappearing. After all the hard work schools and communities have invested into developing systems and supports for these students, why is it going up?

Before looking at those questions, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. If we go back two years or at least two cycles ago for the data—to the 2012-2013 school year—the dropout rate was 2.5 percent. It was 2.5 percent last year too. Here’s a quick view of dropout numbers:

  • 2014-2015: 11,114 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2013-2014: 10,546 Students, 2.4 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2012-2013: 10,664 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate

You’ll notice that while the dropout rate was the same, there were 450 more students who dropped out last year compared to 2012-2013. This is because there are more students attending school in Colorado, which is impacting both the number of students and the rate. However, I think we would all agree that 450 students is a lot. And 11,114 students are too many.

So what is happening? It is uncertain right now, but we have two lines of thinking.

Our first line is that the improved job market is providing students with other avenues besides graduation. In the past, there were no jobs and so school increased the prospects of getting a job. Connected to this issue is the increased cost of living in our rapidly changing state. The high cost of rent is requiring some youth to work to support their families. For the long term, we know that having an education is absolutely essential.

Our next line of thinking is that these students are facing extreme barriers. While the schools and communities have made dramatic steps forward in helping these students, we might be nearing the end of those developments. The issues they face, like extreme poverty, sexual orientation, homelessness, court involvement, and the foster care system—to name just a few—go beyond what any single agency or school can solve.

As things move forward we hope to understand why the rate went up. Whatever the exact answers might be, we believe it will take broad coordination between all youth-serving agencies and organizations to see the next eight year reduction in the dropout rate.

The Issues Impacting Youth and Their Families: The Educational Divide

Program staff and AmeriCorps members with Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) speak to hundreds of youth each year about their education. Some of these youth are still in school, but are beginning to struggle–failing a core class or having issues with attendance. Some of these youth have left school altogether and are considered a “dropout” with an uncertain future. When we speak with these youth, we find that there are many reasons for their current predicament. Very rarely do we find that it’s simply an act of rebellion. It’s often systemic and connected to larger social issues like poverty, system involvement, or their sexual orientation.

These conversations follow a strict rule of youth development: Meet the youth where they are at. We do this for a couple of reasons. One is because it’s important to give them the chance to speak with their own voice and describe things in their own words. Many of these youth feel disempowered and carried along by forces beyond their control. It’s necessary to make them an active agent in their process and we do this by listening. The other reason is it’s important to understand where they are currently, and where they can go in the future. We want to grasp their situation correctly and create a plan that is attainable and inspires them to reach their full potential.

Yet an aspect of meeting them where they are at–and listening without bias–is that we learn about new issues impacting youth and their families. This is especially poignant in a state like Colorado, which is quickly becoming one of the most expensive states in the country. We intend to further explore this in a future blog post.

Because of this and our experiences supporting youth in multiple schools and school districts across Colorado, we have decided to bring a focused effort to sharing our understanding, as well as our data, through this blog. We hope that people will find our observations and insights valuable. We also hope to connect with broader research and practices and show that helping youth with school is important, not only for them, but for the communities we live in as well.

About: The Educational Divide

The Educational Divide blog is created by Colorado Youth for a Change.  Colorado Youth for a change is working to help in-school youth stay in school and out-of-school youth get back into school. Because of our experiences supporting youth in multiple schools and school districts across Colorado, we have decided to bring a focused effort to sharing our understanding, as well as our data. We hope that people will find our observations and insights valuable. We also hope to connect with broader research and practices and show that helping youth with school is important, not only for them, but for the communities we live in as well.

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