Chapter 3
II. Developing Early Warning And Recovery Systems Supported By Community Involvement

In Chapter 3, Section I, we discussed revamping schools, a macro- approach to changing the environment in which students are educated. Here, we zero in on the students who are falling off the graduation path and into dropout status. Plank 3 of the Civic Marshall Plan points out that each of our communities will need a way to identify and support students at the moment they begin to fall off the path to high school graduation. Your community will also have to recognize, however, that even with increased dropout prevention efforts, some students will still go seriously off track or even drop out. As a result, the community will need to provide alternative pathways to high school graduation, as well as strong dropout recovery strategies.


Most students who drop out follow patterns of failing grades, poor attendance and poor behavior, having sent these signals of distress and poor decision-making for years.

Because of this, educators have developed “on-track and off-track indicators” that identify a student who is at risk of dropping out long before the student does so. The indicators are usually referred to as the ABCs – attendance, behavior and course-passing in English and math. Middle and high schools need to know these signals and develop systems that will let them know when students are veering from the graduation path. The data needed for such an early warning system are available in all schools: in simplest form, in teachers’ paper grade- books, in referral slips, and attendance records. As schools become more technologically sophisticated, such information is increasingly available electronically. Accessing such information is not always easy. To protect students’ privacy, a school or district can use ID numbers or other codes when sharing the data. Concerns about student privacy, however, mean that efforts must evolve collaboratively with schools and districts, not independently.

Such indicator systems are cropping up all over the country. A few states — Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia among  have established statewide early warning systems, and other states and districts have student information systems and performance management systems that collect a great deal of data into “data warehouses.” Data warehouses and the related early warning systems can supply specific sets of information (sometimes in easy-to-interpret “dashboard” form) to central office administrators, principals, counselors, teachers, and increasingly, parents and students. Many of the first generation early warning systems were established by schools or districts, and a few of them were created through important partnerships with community partners. A key part of any early warning system is a school-based team that shares the data and identifies the students who are off-track or going in that direction, and who need help. The team should be made up of staff and faculty who have contact with students daily. Some districts are getting help from community groups, such as the local United Way chapter, in setting up the data-gathering system and the teams to act on the data.


For some students, dropping out can be traced to experiences at the start of elementary school. Existing research indicates three areas that communities should check:

  • Early chronic absenteeism: How many students are missing a month or more of school in K–3?
  • Positive school experiences: How many students are having serious behavioral problems in K–3? How many students are developing effective, pro-social and executive function skills?
  • Acquiring basic reading skills: How many students leave first grade on pace to becoming good readers? How many students enter third grade without strong reading skills?

It is during the middle grades and the first two years of high school, however, that we can identify the majority of students who, without proper interventions matched with their needs, will likely not graduate. During these years it is particularly important to pay attention to the red flags of the ABCs:

To get your system started, use the chart:

Tool 15 | Key Data for An “Early Warning System” with On- And Off-Track Indicators


  • Attendance: Sixth- to tenth-graders who miss fewer than five days per year have an 85 percent likelihood of graduating. Those who miss 10 or more days of school are sending increasingly loud distress signals. Students who miss 20 days are in great danger, and those who miss 40 or more days of school are virtually assured of not graduating without serious and sustained, supportive interventions.
  • Behavior: Middle and high school students who get suspended need support to stay on track to graduation, but so do students who consistently demonstrate mild misbehavior or lack of effort, such as not completing assignments, not paying attention, or being disruptive in the classroom. Studies show that even one suspension in ninth grade is indicative of decreased graduation potential, without intervention.
  • Course Performance: Middle and high school students who receive an F, particularly in mathematics or English, or two or more F’s in any course, are falling off the graduation path. Ds and very low GPAs are also cause for concern. A study in Chicago found that ninth- graders who receive a C- are as likely to dropout as to graduate. Overall, course performance is much more predictive of a student’s odds of graduating than are test scores.
  • Credit Accrual and Earned On-time Promotion: Adolescents who do not meet the credit requirements to be promoted to the next grade (and as a result become significantly older than others in their grade) will likely not graduate unless they receive sustained support. Many will need innovative educational options tailored to their unique circumstances. Communities need to reduce the number of over-age students by effectively responding to the first signs of student distress.



Getting students back on track to graduation is the work of districts, schools, families and the whole community.

To be effective, early warning indicator systems need to be linked to prevention, intervention, and recovery responses, which match the appropriate help with the right student at the right time. The help, or intervention, may be academic or social or both. For each behavior that signals a student is falling off track — attendance, behavior, and course performance — there needs to be several levels, often called tiers, of intervention. There also needs to be a school team that looks at the data regularly, preferably weekly or bi-weekly, and spots the indicators. Then that team can initiate one, or all, of the following interventions:

  • Whole-school interventions: When the behavior or issue affects most students, it is time for school-wide prevention strategies or remedies. These can be a modeling or incentive strategy that instills good habits and changes bad ones. For instance, if attendance is low throughout the school, school staff, working with parents and community leaders, can devise ways to get students to school on time. Perhaps a competition among homerooms, with recognition or small individual prizes for not missing a day, or lunch with the principal for the five most-improved students per grade will spur better attendance. As an example of a broader approach, make the first month of school Attendance Awareness Month and have a community-wide campaign to instill and then support good habits throughout the year. Ask health providers to remind parents – via video loops, brochures and other material in libraries, clinics and grocery stores, for examples – how important it is for their children to be in school and do well. Such efforts are particularly effective when local government officials and faith-based organizations lead the charge.
  • Small-group or targeted, interventions aimed at students with similar behaviors. For instance, if there is a small group of students who are repeatedly absent, a teacher or mentor can work with those students – first to find out why they miss school, and then what others could do to help them get to school regularly and on time. With that information, the team can work with the students on a plan and incentives to get them to school – a breakfast club, for instance, a buddy system, or extra credit for being at their first class on time. If the challenge is Algebra 1, the school can establish extra-help opportunities, such as asking seniors who are proficient in math to tutor for community service credit, or community members to volunteer as mentors once a week, helping the student establish motivation for learning as well as tackling the use of variables.
  • Intense and individualized support, often provided by professional counselors, social workers and mental and medical health agencies. Only about 5 to 10 percent of students in most high schools (in high-poverty areas, the percentage is often higher because of social and emotional needs caused by stressful living situations) require this kind of support. Someone who is chronically absent may be taking care of a sibling or other family member; he or she may not be able to afford a uniform — there are many reasons students skip school. Some are well beyond the student’s control. This is where a professional steps in to find the services a student needs, helps the student access the services, coaches them to use them and monitors the outcomes.

Deeper Look

For information on chronic absenteeism and a toolkit for assessing this issue in grades K-5, visit Attendance Works,

For information on chronic absenteeism in all grades preK-12, see The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools,

For more information on early warning systems, see a suite of reports from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University,, including: Three Steps to Building an Early Warning and Intervention System for Potential Dropouts, with an overview of the research literature related to early warning systems, indicators, and successful interventions; On Track For Success, a brief from the Everyone Graduates Center and Civic Enterprises that examines the features of the first generation of early warning systems in states, districts and schools; and Learning What It Takes: An Initial Look at how Schools are using Early Warning Indicator Data and Collaborative Response Teams to Keep All Students on Track to Success

Also visit the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), Volume 18, Issue 1, 2013, Special Issue: Early Warning Indicators of High School Outcomes,


Who Delivers Help? How Is The Community


Build Academic And Social-Emotional Competencies

Increase The Number Of Skilled And Committed Adults Who Provide Student Supports

Getting Families Involved
Provide Multiple Pathways To Success And

For further information on tiered interventions, visit What Your Community Can Do to End the Graduation Crisis, Also visit the website sponsored by the Office of Special Education, U.S. Department of Education, Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions, which provides capacity- building information, technical assistance and resources for adapting and sustaining effective school-wide and tiered disciplinary programs,

For additional information on key components of an effective dropout prevention and recovery system, see Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) Practice Guide on Dropout Prevention and the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network’s 15 Effective Strategies for Dropout Prevention.

To learn more about solutions to truancy, behavior and case management, see publications and on-line courses of the National Center for School Engagement, including Mending the Cracks in the Graduation Pipeline, and How to Evaluate Your Truancy Program,, and of the Partnership for Families and Children,

Related Civic Marshall Plan Planks

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