August 20, 2008

Students Must Be Engaged at Home, School to Succeed

By Walt Rulffes



By any measure, Nevada has among the lowest high school graduation rates in United States. Thomas Jefferson said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be."

The high school dropout rate is a freedom issue not only for this nation, but especially for the young adult who faces a bleak future without a high school education. The fact that more than 50 percent of some minority groups fail to complete high school is not only a social injustice, but also a growing economic crisis for this country to have an insufficiently educated work force.

At the national level, nearly one in three students will drop out of high school. It's been calculated that the government would save $45 billion in reduced costs of public health, crime, judicial proceedings and welfare payments if the number of high school dropouts among 20-year-olds in the United States today were reduced by 50 percent.

At the local level, we've been battling this issue for some time. Why do students drop out of school? Where do they go? Two years ago, to learn answers to these questions, the Clark County School District attempted to contact 1,926 students who had dropped out of school. Of the 1,092 students we could locate, our telephone survey results showed that the most common reasons students gave for dropping out included: high absenteeism; poor grades; credit deficient; unable to pass the Nevada High School Proficiency Examination; and student/family mobility.

A second survey was conducted this year. Again, many students could not be contacted due to disconnected numbers and no forwarding information. Out of 3,791 students who dropped out, only 1,020 could be located. The responses on the second survey indicated that the major reasons for dropping out were: employment; did not like school; credit deficient; high absenteeism; and pregnancy.

We also learned that many non-returning students aren't actually dropouts. There is no tracking system for students who leave the system without formally withdrawing; some students who are counted as dropouts go to other school districts, some go to alternative or adult programs, some earn their GED, and some go to private, charter or home schools. However, many are dropouts who merge into low-wage or no-wage activities, often with resulting collateral damage.

So how do we get all kids through school? Taxpayers in this country have spent millions of dollars on school reform for generations - all of which promised results - but little has changed.

Common sense, along with actual experience in magnet schools, occupational classes and extra-curricular activities, suggests that one solution is to offer programs that students find personally engaging. In comparing student performance across Clark County schools, campuses that offer career choices to students, while still meeting state-mandated graduation requirements, have fewer discipline issues, higher attendance, higher achievement and higher graduation rates.

In a word, engagement leads to student success. Students are engaged when they can make choices that appeal to them and that provide a clear path toward the future they envision.

To this end, the Clark County School Board committed to expanding high school options for students. This fall the third of six career and technical academies will come on line. A career and technical academy is a contemporary version of a vocational school that is loaded with state-of-the-art technology and current business and/or industry career choices. Career clusters are selected and designed based on guidance from local business advisory groups.

While schools play a critical role in preventing dropouts, a discussion of meaningful engagement must include parents and/or other influential adults in the lives of children. Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools and one of the nation's leading child advocates, appropriately notes that "we don't have a youth problem in America - we have an adult problem." He argues that if adults fail to model and provide a community that meets the needs of its youth, and how can we expect youth to behave any differently?

Poor attendance, which goes hand-in-hand with poor performance, is one of the main factors leading to dropping out. As absences increase, achievement decreases, and as achievement decreases, students become more determined to stay away from school, because it has become synonymous with "failure."

Schools can't teach kids who aren't present. Parents must get their children to school. And children don't "fail" overnight; there are innumerable early warning signs of poor academic performance and attendance, and the longer parents wait to take notice, the more likely it is their children will drop out. Guidance, expectations, and abundant love must begin the day a child is born.

Every child needs a safety net. Schools can hold only one corner of the net. These children need us every day - parents, school, community - modeling the success and conduct we hope for. If we can offer enticing choices for students to be engaged, and if parents and other adults are equally engaged in the lives of children, our graduation rates can only improve.

Walt Rulffes is superintendent of the Clark County School District.

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