Who will lead your community’s efforts to overcome the dropout crisis? You will need someone who is respected, responsible and committed to getting something done. Your efforts could be spearheaded by the school superintendent, the mayor, a business leader, a community college or university president, representatives from a local public education foundation or nonprofit organization – or all of these people in partnership with parents and students.
Ideally, your leaders will have the social networks to involve other key community leaders. Above all, they will believe strongly that the crisis is real, that the community has to do something about it, and that they are willing to make change happen. They won’t take no for an answer, will cheer others on, and go the extra mile to convince a fence-sitter to get involved.
The lead team — the Dropout Prevention and Graduation Improvement Team (Steering Committee)
Committed community members can help enlist others, perhaps informally at first and behind the scenes. The next steps they take may be public, as they form the lead committee, a 10- to 15-member Dropout Prevention and Graduation Improvement Team. In many communities this is a steering committee.
In the early stages of your efforts (which may realistically take a year or more) you will want to recruit committed, respected, effective people and organizations to lead the campaign to improve graduation rates. In addition, you’ll want to form workgroups – teams of five to ten individuals who tackle one component of the work. Guided by the steering committee, each work group will likely see its work become part of one strategic plan.
The Dropout Prevention and Graduation Improvement Team’s primary responsibilities for its first year might be to:
- Identify the political and geographic areas, the school districts, or schools you wish to serve , and the rationale for making these choices.
- Gather compelling evidence for the “why” of graduation rate improvement – why does it matter?
- Hear from youth in trouble, youth who have turned themselves around, and adults who were challenged but who have made it into successful careers and quality lives
- Collect, analyze and understand data for the relevant communities or parts of communities that you wish to serve: Educational needs, economic conditions, workforce needs, demographics, as well as trends over the last 10 years and projections for the next 10 years.
- Inventory community assets, resources and opportunities. Who and which organizations in your community work with struggling youth? Which agencies have the potential to do so? What needs are unmet?
- Identify and enlist additional individuals and organizations that are not yet involved.
- Study the national research base to learn what researchers find to be effective, and find out more about what other communities have done and what the outcomes are.
- Organize and summarize the data gathered by work groups.
- Create a PowerPoint or other presentation to tell the story of the dropout challenge to the wider community.
- Develop a preliminary plan with three-, six-, nine-, and 12-month benchmarks.
- Plan a summit to inform and mobilize the community.
- Begin building a formal community infrastructure, mechanisms, and resources to sustain the work over the next two to 10 years.
- Develop a Community Graduation Compact.
- Get to work.
While the Dropout Prevention and Graduation Improvement Team will lead the planning, it will be vital to form effective work groups. They, too, will provide crucial expertise and commitment and be able to focus on crucial topics.
The members of the work groups should come from across the community. Here are some potential sources:
- Local government agencies, including the mayor and city council members, representatives of government agencies such as the departments of health and child welfare, regional education agencies, economic development agencies, workforce development boards, the juvenile justice and law enforcement systems, and two- and four-year colleges and universities.
- Local community representatives, including members of the Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, faith-based organizations, community-based and other nonprofit organizations, hospitals and the public health system, media, and people from the business community
- District- and school-related staff, including the superintendent, school board members, principals, teachers, counselors, union representative and those who serve as a link between schools and health, social, or justice agencies.
- Parents and students, because local efforts often forget to involve the “customers” — the students themselves and the parents who support them
- Partners in the America’s Promise Alliance, which includes hundreds of national organizations working to help more young people graduate from high school ready for college and work. Consider reaching out to their local affiliates for assistance in your community. Review the list of Alliance Partners.
As your graduation improvement efforts move forward, work groups become increasingly important. They will be examining current conditions and making recommendations — within their team, to other teams, and to the Dropout Prevention and Graduation Improvement Team – for improvements. The steering committee will help align these ideas into a strategic plan.
One likely family of work groups is:
- Policy and Financial Resources Team
- Community Data Team
- School Practices Team
- Student Support and Out-of-School-Time Team
- Parent Engagement Team
- Community Resources Team
- Media and Communications Team
Exact titles and duties will vary according to what works best for each community.
Policy and Financial Resources Team
This team will be responsible for conducting the policy audit. This involves reviewing state, district, and local education, health, welfare, and justice system policies and practices, as well as federal and foundation funding — f low-through or from specific grants — for their impact on student success and failure. The team should determine how revising local policies and practices might keep more students on the path to graduation. Your team will probably comprise people from civic government, and community-based organizations, the school board chair and superintendent, and the higher education system.
The team also should set short-, mid- and long-term goals. For example:
Short-term (one year) goals: Changes in local agencies’ and schools’ initiatives and programs, and roles and responsibilities connecting community agencies, institutions, families, and parents; program implementation and evaluation.
Mid-term (one to three years) goals: Changes in community policies, practices, roles, and relationships among agencies, nonprofits, businesses, districts and schools; program implementation and evaluation.
Long-term (three or more years) goals: Major alterations in:
relationships, roles, and responsibilities among agencies and institutions; and/or
allocation of federal or state funding.
Community Data Team
This team constructs an overall qualitative and quantitative picture of the community, identifies new types of data that need to be collected, and predicts future needs. State, local government, district, post- secondary, and school leaders may be helpful in understanding data, framing questions, and posing challenges.
The members of this team will need good access to existing data. They may be educators, bankers, accountants and insurers. They are skilled at looking for patterns in numbers and think creatively and rigorously about ways to access, compile, and analyze information. They may also be joined by colleagues in the juvenile and adult justice and social welfare systems, and from state and local health and civic agencies as well as community-based organizations.
School Practices Team
What occurs within school walls that might influence whether students drop out or graduate? It is the job of this team, under the leadership of district administrators and school principal(s), to find out. In fact, depending on the district and school, there may already be a committee that is responsible for school practices. It may be possible to adapt the existing team to meet new needs.
This team’s members examine district and school policies and practices related to grading; responses to absenteeism, tardiness, and good and bad behavior; interactions with the courts and alternative disciplinary education systems; scheduling; mentoring, and tutoring; and incentive, recognition, and reward systems. Team members also can also examine research on the impact of state, district and school policies on students staying in school.
Parents and community partners are valuable members of this team, as are students at the secondary levels. The initial product of this team’s work might be a chart relating district and school policies and practices to students’ success or failure, and a series of questions about changes in district and school policies and practices that might produce improved student outcomes.
Student Support and Out-of-School-Time Team
This team is responsible for conducting an inventory of support and intervention programs: what programs exist, their effect on student outcomes, whether there are overlaps in services, and what other programs are needed. This audit will reveal which students are being served, which are not, and what changes should be made.
The team’s first products might be a report detailing the number of:
- middle and high school students who are failing one or more courses and are receiving tutoring – or who need it and are not being helped
- middle and high school students who have between five and ten absences and now have mentors who work with them daily and weekly – or who need mentors
- young mothers who are supported with day care and by a mentor – or who receive no supports
- young men who have difficulty connecting with others in a positive way and have mentors and case managers – or who are not helped.
This team may include members from community-based organizations; faith-based organizations; health, welfare, and justice representatives; school district and school personnel; students and parents. Its report will reveal the gap between what is currently delivered and what is still needed. Over the longer term, the team can recommend new services that reach targeted students so everyone will get the support services they need for success, in and out of school.
Parent Engagement Team
The parent team’s charge is to catalog existing programs, practices and policies that facilitate or hinder parents’ involvement in their child’s school and out-of-school activities. This review will reveal which efforts have proven most effective, which need to be changed or eliminated, and where there are gaps to be filled. The team can then recommend taking steps that national research shows to be highly effective, especially those targeted for parents of students most at-risk of dropping out.
Some of the questions that can be considered include:
- Are parents able to determine if their child is on- or off-track by accessing data dashboards that have real-time information on students’ grades, credit accrual, disciplinary referrals and attendance?
- When and how does the school communicate with parents and caregivers about their child’s attendance, behavior and course performance?
- What information and support are available to parents and caregivers so they can help their child stay or get back on track?
In addition to parents themselves, team members may include teachers and administrators, school social workers, students, and representatives from community-based organizations that serve children and families, faith-based organizations, child welfare system, and major employers.
Community Resources Team
This team’s responsibility is to identify and evaluate human, financial, and facility resources across the community. Assets include individual relationships within the community as well as formal institutional relationships and networks. All of these assets can be put to good use and focused to produce results.
The team not only develops a profile of the community’s resources, but also gets a sense of resources that could be re-designated or combined in new ways, possibly across traditional barriers in government, agencies, and education systems.
For example, the team might track and evaluate resources that affect teacher, administrator, and service provider quality and availability; professional development for teachers; and training for mentors and tutors. It might also consider creative ways to take advantage of the private sector’s expertise through loaned executive and manager programs; to piggyback on existing resources through shared-use buses or facility programs; or to bring new services to students cost-effectively by providing school space to community organizations. In these and other ways, the team’s work can lead to expanded service networks across the community.
Media and Communications Team
Progress can go faster if you have the attention of your community. Word needs to get out that there is a dropout crisis, it is solvable, and you and other community members are doing something about it. While the team can begin with a small, dedicated group, effective long-term communications require a strategy.
Its goals might be to:
- share information so the community becomes deeply aware of the graduation challenge
- change attitudes and beliefs as necessary
- create a wellspring of support for efforts
- invite individuals and organizations to become involved and take action
This team’s success will increase if many of its members have experience working on communications. It is also helpful, however, to have members with a different focus. They will provide various perspectives and highlight key issues such the danger of assuming too much previous knowledge or making arguments that the audience won’t find compelling.
All these work groups’ work will produce recommendations that lead to a strategic action plan. The steering committee will guide the assimilation of the different recommendations into such a plan.