Cities Sharpen Strategies to Re-Engage Dropouts

Even though the U.S.  graduation rate has risen to its highest level in 40 years, one in five students drop out of school before receiving a high school diploma.

While re-engaging these dropouts may be challenging, efforts are underway in states across the nation to target, identify, and fully equip these students with the tools and resources they need to return to school and maximize their potential.

It’s not easy,” said Andrew Moore, Senior Fellow with the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities. “There’s no clear roadmap, and it’s obvious that support is needed for the students. We’re seeing in response that dropout reengagement is spreading throughout the country.”

Moore made his remarks at an American Youth Policy Forum event, “Re-Engaging Dropouts: Local Innovations & New Opportunity for Policy,” held in Washington D.C. this past week. Featured presenters included Robert Sainz, Assistant General Manager, Economic and Workforce Development Department for the city of Los Angeles, Calif., and Eric Dregne, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

During the discussion, the panelists discussed some of the methods and approaches to re-engaging dropouts that are currently being utilized. One of the more successful models for drawing students back into schools have been re-engagement centers and programs that have sprung up in cities across the country. Described by Moore as “staffed portals,” the dropout re-engagement centers operate on the citywide or school district level and work to identify the needs and academic desires of students wishing to pursue their high school diploma or GED.

The goal of the centers is to provide a one-stop locale for dropouts that encompasses outreach, assessments, referrals, re-enrollment, and continued supportive services necessary for them to finalize their educations. Many of them even employ staff whose goal it is to locate and identify the individual dropouts in order to maximize the effectiveness of the programs.

“One of the key elements in the re-engagement process is affirmative outreach to find the young people, whether its from a list provided by the school district or finding them at-large on the street,” Moore said. “Others include conducting assessments of their education status and needs, their psychosomatic needs, making referrals not only to good education options to complete high school equivalency, but also ways to get their other needs met. And then giving them the support needed to re-enroll, because we know that a referral is not sufficient to get young people back in school, and then further support for up to a year after re-enrollment.”

Once students have been identified, staff with the re-engagement centers or programs work  to identify an academic model that best fits the needs and wishes of the dropout. Depending on how long they’ve been out of school or other factors, students can either return back to traditional school, attend an alternative school, or work towards a high school equivalency or GED program.

All told, reengagement programs during the 2012-2013 school year in 13 cities managed to contact 41,000 students, referring 10,000 of them to re-enrollment opportunities. One of the major successes of the re-engagement programs nationally has been a high retention rate for re-enrolled students. During the 2012-2013 school year, former dropout students had a 73% retention rate after re-entering school.

A re-engagement coach (right) in Dubuque talks with a re-enrolled student.

Re-engage Dubuque, a community initiative in Dubuque, Iowa, has already seen a large drop off in the number of its overall annual dropouts. Perhaps as a testament to the effectiveness of their re-engagement centers, the number of yearly district dropouts is dwindling, while the number of former dropouts who have been re-engaged through the programs continues to increase.

“Our approach was to bring a group of partners together to understand this issue for our community,” said Eric Dregne, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. “We stared with a simple question: how many kids drop out? And what do they do once they do?”

After identifying the number of dropouts and their reasons for leaving school, the initiative was better equipped to serve their unique needs going forward through the re-enrollment process. Because Dubuque is a relatively small city, the goal was to personally identify and meet with each dropout in order to encourage them to return for the rest of their educations.

And the approach has been working. Since August 2012, Re-engage Dubuque has contacted 206 dropouts and re-engaged 180 of them. It’s a testament to transformative potential that re-engagement programs can have for a once written-off school demographic.

“Our graduation has gone up, and I don’t think that’s entirely due to our re-engagement program but it’s a piece of it,” Dregne said. “Our district dropout rate has gone down by about 42%. Again, this isn’t all us because our schools are doing tremendous work, but one of the great things about doing re-engagement work is that the schools become more aware of the issues and they begin to do a better job of intervention.”