Keeping Them In Their Seats

Photo by Yun Mi Park.

Photo by Yun Mi Park.

In my previous blog, I shared some of the drop out statistics facing Georgia. In Georgia’s State of the State Address, Governor Nathan Deal acknowledged that Georgia’s 45th out of 47 states ranking in on-time high school completion is unacceptable and has to change. However, I want to caution against the assumption that Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana don’t have challenges. There are districts within these states that are dropout factories (60 percent or less graduate in four years), while others are dropout factories for minority, disabled and/or poor students. For example, Alabama had nine districts with cohort graduation rates 60 percent or lower according to Kids Count and the Alabama Department of Education.

As all states adopt the cohort graduation rate, we will all have a better understanding of where our dropouts are and how many we really have. But that still doesn’t address why students drop out. Boredom, income, biased discipline policies, credit deficiency, and numerous other reasons continue to unmotivate students who eventually choose to leave high school. In addition, community culture also plays a role. A culture of low expectations that graduation isn’t necessary or questioning college can at times be the greatest challenge a student faces.

Whatever the reasons, schools need to transform, not reform, to keep students ‘in their seats’ and get back those that have left school. All of the Southern states have put several initiatives and policies in place over the last several years to address high school graduation rates and prepare students for life after high school. Whether there is will and resources behind the talk, especially after a decade of declining budgets, remains to be seen.

There are many cities, regions and states in the South that are using innovative approaches to successfully transform districts and schools into places that ensure all students are college and career ready. Academic accelerators, career academies, early colleges, small learning communities, virtual schools, charters, and other initiatives are being implemented to change the trajectory of students in becoming ready for life after high school. All of these models have demonstrated an ability to keep students engaged and on track to being college ready.

One of the most notable innovative programs that is generating strong results is the North Carolina New Schools (NCNS) whose vision is that every student in North Carolina should graduate ready for college, careers and life. Launched in 2003, its partnership with businesses, educators and government serves as a catalyst for school innovation. The NCNS promotes a variety of high school design models to achieve the single goal of graduating all students well prepared. Innovations promoted and supported by NCNS include career academies, small learning communities, early colleges, STEM and thematic schools, and a virtual school. Since NCNS began, nearly three quarters of North Carolina’s 100 counties have at least one of these innovative schools. According to the Early College High School Initiative, North Carolina has more than 70 early colleges (nearly four times the combined number of early colleges in AL, GA, MS, LA, TN = 18). North Carolina’s transformation is based on the approach that rigor, relevance and relationships engage and re-engage students in learning to better prepare them for life.

Another innovative approach is the venerable Florida Virtual School (FLVS), recognized as one of the nation’s leading online learning programs with proven results in engaging at-risk students and dropouts to complete their high school educations. Started in 1997, the FLVS has served as a model for many of its neighbors in establishing their own virtual schools. According to FLVS, it has served more than 1 million students since its inception and has demonstrated success in keeping at-risk high school students in school. Today the FLVS offers 120 courses—including core subjects, world languages, electives, honors, and 15 Advanced Placement courses. In addition, it allows students to recover credits if there have been interruptions to their learning (dropping out) without the challenges associated with them returning to a traditional school learning environment. There are now virtual schools offering high school courses in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi established based on the success of FLVS and other virtual schools across the nation.

Career academies are also addressing at-risk students by keeping them in school. Career academies differ from traditional vocational education because they prepare high school students for both college and careers. The academies weave career-focused themes into academic curricula that lead to qualifying students for admission to colleges or universities. According to the College and Career Academy Support Network, there are 70 career academies in the South with 13 in Alabama, 17 in Georgia, 30 in Louisiana, one in Mississippi, and nine in Tennessee. Career academies are helping keep our students in and completing high school ready for college or the workforce.

More efforts like these are needed to transform education for student success. The economic imperative for communities and students are real.  Communities, regions, and states that take the initiative in transforming high school learning will see growth and stability instead of decline and decimation. Places with the most educated and prepared high school students are and will continue to win this race in the new economy. It is long past time for communities in the South to take an active and aggressive role in providing access to opportunity for all students, not just those in the right zip code.

For more information:
North Carolina New Schools
Early College High Schools Initiative
Edutopia: Schools That Work
Career Academies/Career Academy Support Network
National Career Academy Coalition

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