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Curing the High School Dropout Epidemic

Who's at Risk?
teen dropouts
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Nick Higgins

Hoping to curb the dropout epidemic, schools are launching a variety of programs to help troubled kids reverse course. That's all well and good, but the problem also needs to be addressed at the front end. "Identifying struggling students early and intervening promptly could keep more kids on track to graduate," says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Network. Teachers and parents, he adds, should watch out for the following: Elementary school kids more than two grade levels behind in reading or with a failing grade in math or English; children who transfer several times before the end of middle school; and those who have been held back. Repeated absences may spell trouble too. "A week or two a semester may not seem like much, but before you know it, the actual learning time a child has in a classroom is reduced to the point where he's at risk," says Smink. And as Angelique discovered, playing hooky can quickly become a tough habit to break. "I told myself it was just this one time, but before I knew it, one day turned into the next and I had skipped the entire month of February," she recalls.

High schools are beginning to turn up the heat on truancy. Five years ago Kentucky students with six unexcused absences were sent to court, where judges would issue stern warnings, hold them in contempt if they kept ditching classes, and eventually place them in custody. None of that seemed to help. Now, under the watchful eye of Patrick Yewell, executive officer of Family and Juvenile Services, the state's program has become more targeted, compassionate, and effective. Three absences lead to a meeting between the student, his parents, and a guidance counselor, who sends the family to a mandatory three-hour course on school attendance.

"For 8 out of 10 kids, that's the cure," says Yewell. The other 20 percent get more intensive supervision and intervention from counselors, school administrators, social workers, mental health professionals and community service providers. "Sometimes it's the little things that are keeping them from getting to school—no clean clothes, a broken alarm clock, dental work," says Yewell. "The guidance teams try to pinpoint the problem and address it." So far, they're succeeding: The program, which now serves 6,000 students at 144 middle schools and high schools, has reduced truancy rates by 50 percent.