Families, focused effort help Dorch. 2 slash dropout rate

English teacher April Simmons-Brown works with students during an evening class to help them catch up on course credits and graduate on time at Summerville High School. The district expanded the evening school program a few years go as part of a concerted effort to reduce the dropout rate.

If you start skipping classes at Summerville High School, your parents will likely hear from assistant principal Valerie Blunt.

At your doorstep.

It’s less awkward than it sounds.

Blunt is the assistant principal for prevention and intervention at Summerville High. Her job is to make sure all of the school’s 2,800 students graduate in four years. That means she spends a lot of time scouring attendance records, calling parents, and if that doesn’t work, knocking on their doors in an attempt to “re-engage” their children at school.

“Many families have been so glad when we came to sit down and talk with them about what’s going on with their student,” Blunt said. “They’re just all so thankful that the school and the district care enough to come out and see what’s going on in their homes.”

Keeping an at-risk student on track is a “team effort,” Blunt said – one that requires help from administrators, teachers, counselors and yes, parents too. In fact, new research suggests family engagement may hold the key to deterring students from dropping out.

In a landmark meta-analysis from Clemson University’s National Dropout Prevention Center and Network, Shanan Chappell Moots, a fellow at the center, examined 61 studies on 12 dropout prevention strategies, including mentoring, academic support, job training and service-learning, and measured their impact on school dropout rates.

The most significant factor affecting dropout rates was family engagement, followed by behavioral intervention and literacy development. The least effective was academic support, which was, ironically, the most widely used strategy according to her research.

“Family involvement is impactful from preschool through the high school years,” Chappell Moots said. “Having been an elementary teacher, seeing the ones whose families are very involved, it does make a difference.”

Her research could aid school districts, boards, principals and teachers as they attempt to make judicious, evidence-based decisions to solve their dropout problems. Implementing dropout prevention programs isn’t cheap or easy. Family engagement, in particular, said Sandy Addis, interim director of the dropout-prevention center, “is a tough nut to crack.”

Nationally, the four-year high school graduation rate in the United States reached a historic high of 81.4 percent in 2013 while the annual high school dropout rate (which should not be confused as an inverse of on-time graduation rates) bottomed out at 7 percent. In South Carolina, the graduation rate for the same year was 77.6 percent and the dropout rate was 2.5 percent according to a report by the S.C. Department of Education. And although gaps have narrowed, they still persist between white and minority students and students with disabilities.

Improvement, Addis said, isn’t enough.

“A kid who doesn’t finish high school is more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. They’re more likely to require social service programs, public assistance,”he said. “We’ve got a problem there.”

Dropping out is a process and it usually starts with “disengagement” in the classroom, he explained. Grades slip. Attendance deteriorates. In the age of smartphones and social media, “it’s harder to make school interesting to kids than it was 20 years ago.” Long before they quit school, students mentally “check out.”

A veteran science teacher, Blunt pondered similar questions, wondering why some students succeeded in her classroom and others didn’t.

“A lot of times, there’s a reason for it,” she said. “And it’s not the fact the student is not passing this class because he or she does not want to pass the class, it’s because they have other things going on in their lives that may be affecting their performance in school.”

It’s hard to concentrate on a test, for instance, if you’re hungry or stay awake in class if you slept in your car the night before. So on top of making house calls, Blunt refers families to social service agencies and ensures the school’s food bank in the back of the media center is fully stocked. She oversees Summerville High’s thrice-weekly evening schools, where students can catch up on their credits. She fields emails from teachers sharing their private concerns about “at risk” students.

Her role is part of a districtwide strategy to keep students from falling through the cracks in Dorchester District 2. In 2011, under the direction of the superintendent, the district placed a prevention and intervention team in each high school, consisting of an assistant principal, secretary and counselor, dedicated solely to monitoring potential dropouts. Since then, the district’s four-year graduation rate has skyrocketed – from 74.4 percent in 2010-11 to 84.6 percent last school year. The district’s annual dropout rate decreased, too – from 4.3 percent in 2010 to 1.4 percent four years later.

For school districts trying to improve graduation and dropout rates, Dorchester District 2’s strategy is a working model.

“We are doing everything we can to help them be successful and reach their goals of graduation,” said Elena Furnari, Dorchester Two’s director of high schools. “We’re not just waiting until a student fails.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.