Forgotten youth: Connecting with out-of-school youth through dropout recovery

Each year, thousands of Massachusetts students drop out of school. The path forward for these students is difficult, with limited opportunities for sustained career and life success. Failing to fully educate the next generation of workers and leaders has substantial consequences for our state’s long-term economic and social well-being. The average lifetime cost of a high school dropout approaches a half-million dollars when compared to the contributions of a high school graduate, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies. In a growing global marketplace that increasingly views a high school diploma as the minimum standard for full participation, we can no longer afford to have students not complete their K-12 education.

Policymakers have responded to this dropout crisis by devoting significant attention and dEntremont headshot resources to raising high school graduation rates. In 2009, Massachusetts set a goal of reducing the state dropout rate by half—from 3.4% to 1.7%—by the 2013-14 school year. Several dropout reduction strategies have been introduced in schools and districts to achieve this goal, including: early identification and support of at-risk students; greater support for students transitioning from eighth to ninth grade; credit recovery; social and emotional support; and community partnerships for college and career readiness.

Missing from this seemingly comprehensive agenda, however, is any significant focus on dropout recovery, the act of re-engaging and re-enrolling students who leave school before graduating. The Massachusetts Graduation and Dropout Prevention and Recovery Commission produced a specific recommendation for the state to conduct “active recovery, including reaching out to dropouts and providing them with support and alternative pathways to graduation,” but few districts have the capacity or know-how to effectively connect with out-of-school youth, resulting in the neglect of a large number of the school-age population.

In Boston, the public school district has addressed this knowledge gap through its Re-Engagement Center (REC), a dropout recovery program that strives to re-enroll out-of-school youth through outreach, personal connections, and needs-based educational options. The Rennie Center conducted a case study of the REC in Spring 2012, the findings of which are highlighted in the policy brief  Forgotten Youth: Re-Engaging Students Through Dropout Recovery .

Our research findings describe several promising practices and continuing challenges applicable to other districts. A welcoming and supportive learning environment that provides flexible scheduling, stresses deep and meaningful adult relationships, and is removed from the site of previous “failures,” can help students perceive achievable pathways to graduation and future life goals. Since connecting with out-of-school youth is uncharted territory for many school districts, however, strong partnerships with community organizations already working with at-risk youth may help facilitate this work. Districts will also need to plan for the re-enrollment of out-of-school youth by developing or expanding educational options based on academic and social profiles of returning students (e.g. online credit recovery, night and summer courses, accelerated programs). In doing so, open communication between re-engagement programs and district leadership will help shape systemic change around dropout reduction strategies to better serve all students, including those who are at-risk for leaving school.

The experience of dropout recov­ery in other districts or schools may be quite different, of course. Practices that have worked in Boston may not be seamlessly applied elsewhere, and it is important to tailor dropout re-engagement and recovery strategies to local community needs. Regardless, without a more systemic approach to connect with out-of-school youth through programs like the REC, we will continue to struggle to fulfill our commitment to educate all students.

Chad has devoted a career in education to bridging the divide between research and practice, working with educators and policymakers to ensure all children have the opportunity to succeed in school and in life. He began his career as a teacher, serving high needs students in both urban and rural settings. He is the former assistant director of a nationally-renowned research center at Teachers College, Columbia University and, from 2007-2011, was the research and policy director at Strategies for Children. Most recently, he managed Massachusetts’ successful application for a $50 million Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge award. He has a Ph.D. in Education Policy and Social Analysis and an MA in the Sociology of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. His experiences bring an in-depth understanding of cutting-edge education reforms, yet he remains acutely aware of the realities of classroom practice and daily school life.