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How Can We Keep Kids in School?

Educators find one-on-one attention in any grade is key to helping at-risk students get their diplomas.

By Alain Jehlen

At the beginning of the year, one of Wendy Fujitani's ninth-grade students at Waianae High in Hawaii didn't come to school at all.

"He was 16, tall and athletic, and he wanted to play football, but he had no desire to come in, pass his classes, and be able to play," she recalls. "I called him weekly; the counselor did a home visit. I don't think his Mom had finished high school so he had no push from home. We had to threaten to go to court. Finally, after a month, he started showing up, and then the other kids started pushing him."

Waianae High School teacher Wendy Fujitani is also a Waianae graduate.

Now he attends school regularly, and Fujitani believes he'll stay the course and get his high school diploma. If so, he'll have done better than many other students in danger of dropping out.

The high school dropout problem is not going away. School districts often report dropout rates in ways that make them look good, but when statisticians take off the rose-colored glasses, they find that the percentage of students who don't graduate remains stubbornly high.

A recent study by Education Testing Service (ETS) found the percentage of graduates peaked at 77 percent in 1969, then slid to 69 percent in 2001. Using a different statistical approach, the U.S. Department of Education reported 73 percent graduated in 2002 and 74 percent in 2003.

The problem is worse among low-income, minority youth—about half of African-American and Hispanic students earn diplomas, compared with three-quarters of White students, reports the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

Many educators believe that the pressure for higher test scores in the so-called No Child Left Behind law is leading schools to push low scorers out, or at least not try to keep them in. Ironically, more children will be left behind.

And these kids will face a growing income penalty. ETS looked at the average income of 25- to 34-year-old male dropouts over a 30-year period (1971–02), comparing it with high school graduates and those who got college degrees. All three groups suffered declines in earnings, but dropouts took the hardest hit: Their average income fell by 35 percent.

Programs That Work

What to do? Research suggests there are many places along a child's school career—from kindergarten through high school—where educators can step in and boost that child's chances of graduating. A recent follow-up of students in a landmark 1980s study on class size in Tennessee showed that students who had small classes (13 to 17 students) in kindergarten through fourth grade were 11 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those in classes with 22 to 26 students. The benefit was greatest for low-income children: They were twice as likely to graduate if they had small classes in the primary grades.

Elementary school is certainly not the last opportunity to help students get that diploma, however. Waianae High School, a low-income school outside Honolulu, is using a model called Talent Development High School (, developed 11 years ago by educators at Johns Hopkins University in  partnership with  Philadelphia high schools with low promotion and attendance rates. The program focuses on ninth grade, a time when adolescents are typically plopped into oversized, confusing, tumultuous high schools—and can easily get lost, if no one is paying attention.

But program participants, like Waianae freshmen, get plenty of attention. The 90 students are divided into self-contained groups of three classes. Each group shares three major subject teachers for math, reading, and social studies. All three are in adjacent rooms—no hiking through a giant building looking for the next class. Students take just four classes a day, each about 85 minutes long, instead of the old system of six shorter classes. Ninth-graders are housed apart from the rest of the school, even eating lunch in a separate cafeteria.

"At first, they don't like to be separated," says Kathy Yamamoto, a social studies teacher and team leader at Waianae. "They want to intermingle with the upper grades. The girls want to be with older boys. But by second quarter, they become a unified group. They become protective of each other. Even when they get to 10th and 11th grade, they still hang out together."

Wendy Fujitani, who teaches English, graduated from Waianae herself. When she went there, "I felt I had so many things to do, so many classes to go to, and not enough time to learn anything," she says. "Today, you know they care about you and expect more from you—it's a place to get an education, not just a place to be."

In part, the difference is simple arithmetic: Three teachers with 90 students can keep track of each student a lot better than one teacher with 180. That's why Fujitani was able to focus on her truant football player. Often, all three teachers telephone a parent together, using their common planning time.

Many teachers in Talent Development schools say discipline is much improved. Yamamoto, however, never had much of a problem even before the shift: "I'm kind of a witch," she explains.

Is there a down side? The program involves heterogeneous grouping, which meant no more honors track. "We have differentiated instruction, but sometimes I wonder if the kids who would have been in honors are getting enough," says Yamamoto.

It's three on one when Waianae teachers talk with a student (second from right) about her work.

For teachers, one disadvantage is less variety in the students and material they teach. In the past, many taught some ninth-grade students and some juniors or seniors. Now, they have all ninth-graders or all older students.

How are the kids faring? A long-term study of the first Talent Development schools found that students had better attendance and earned more credits than similar students in a control group, and about 8 percent more of them graduated on time. Talent Development wasn't able to erase the effects of poverty and close the achievement gap completely, but it did seem to help. Now Talent Development is being tried in 85 schools in 20 states.

A Second Chance

While Talent Development's main focus is on ninth graders, other programs concentrate on older students, even trying to to reel in those who have already dropped out. Seattle is one of some 30 cities with Middle College High Schools ( Located on college campuses, these alternative schools, geared to 16- to 20-year-olds, offer a fresh start and a bridge to higher education for dropouts and students who are not doing well in high school.

Alonzo Ybarra coordinates the program on the South Seattle Community College campus.  He and three other teachers work with about 110 students, 15 to 20 percent of whom are former dropouts. "They may come here because McDonald's doesn't pay well enough," he explains. "And we'll take a chance with them, although we're not lowering the academic standards." 

Other students are not dropouts, but felt they needed a different environment to finish high school. Ybarra himself was one of those students. In his regular high school, he had poor grades and "there was a heavy presence of drugs, alcohol, and violence," he recalls. "I did not take myself seriously as a student." So in his senior year, he transferred to South Seattle, where he found a more mature environment and turned his life around. He got his diploma, earned two college credits at the same time, then went on to college and a Master's degree.

The high standards of these programs are just what many students need—teachers take them seriously and the college atmosphere tells them that here, they are respected. Still, Ybarra says the school often loses a fifth of its students per quarter—mostly because of family crises and other personal issues. What is impressive, though, is that about 40 graduate each year.

Hard Work Pays Off

Keeping those potential dropouts in school can happen, but to be successful requires—as usual—lots of personal attention from the educator and hard work from both teacher and student. "I'm more emotionally exhausted now," says Waianae teacher Kathy Yamamoto. "I put a lot more time and effort into my kids' personal lives because I find out what goes on. But the rewards for me are much greater too."

Photos by Ray Tanaka

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