[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]
Keeping at-risk teens in school entails a variety of strategies. It begins by identifying who is mostly likely to drop out and the influences that compel them to do so; these can include bullying, homelessness, financial insecurity, poor nutrition, substance abuse, early pregnancy and abuse at home. Solutions can be targeted individually or schoolwide, but whatever the approach, these problems are difficult, widespread and not always responsive to generalized programs. Although, effective programs do exist.
Check and Connect
Developed at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, Check and Connect has 20 years of documentation to demonstrate program effectiveness and is highly rated by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. It is a relatively low-cost program that trains mentors to check on at-risk students’ attendance, behavior and grades while connecting with them personally to provide coordinated support with school staff, families and community providers. The goal of the program is to build academic and social competence on the path to graduation.
Rated by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse as a top program, Positive Action’s approach is summarized by its logo, which features three arrows representing thoughts, action and feelings revolving around a plus sign for positivity in a virtuous circle. As the program states, “Positive Action is the philosophy that you feel good about yourself when you think and do positive actions, and there is always a positive way to do everything.” If it sounds like a feel-good program, it is, but it also lowers truancy and increases attendance. Success is compelling.
Ripple Effects recognizes the varied influences on dropouts and addresses them by sorting students by risk level, identifying specific behaviors and targeting them with specific, useful interventions. Academic performance is deeply influenced by social and emotional needs. Ripple Effects provides responsive support, aiding students who need to believe in themselves when family, peers or community leads them to doubt. Suspension alternatives are part of the program, steering students toward assessments that also watch for structural unfairness and unconscious bias by school administrations.
This program begins with a comprehensive early warning assessment that not only identifies at-risk students, but determines the reasons underlying their risks and can be reviewed at the district, school, classroom and individual levels. Intervention focuses on six resiliency skills, teaching the essential lesson that failure is occasionally inevitable, but that persistence pays off. Specific skills taught include stress management, intrinsic motivation, academic confidence, balanced well-being, connectedness to others and connecting educational relevance to achievement of life goals.