MSD School Board looks at dropout rates

Terry Rogers Headlines, Schools

On May 17, Milford School District Board of Education heard from Jesse Parsley, Principal at Milford School District, about dropout rates at Milford High School. Before presenting the statistics, Parsley explained how the State of Delaware calculated those rates.

“The State of Delaware uses the National Center for Educational Statistics guidelines to establish dropout rates,” Parsley said. “Students who completed the year before, but do not attend at all during the current year are considered dropouts. If they are under 16, those students are listed as Dropout Underage and if they are over 16 those students are Dropout Truancy. If a child transfers to James H. Groves Adult High School during the year but does enroll in Groves by September 30 of the following year, they are a Dropout Academic for Milford, who is listed as the home school. So, we are on the hook for students if they leave Milford and do not enroll somewhere else. Also, if a student is withdrawn based on truancy, it gets coded as a dropout based on the age requirements I mentioned before.”

According to statistics presented by Parsley, during the 2017-18 school year, Milford had a 2.7 percent dropout rate. The number dropped to 2.6 percent in 2018-19. In 2019-20, the last year that statistics are available, the dropout rate was 1.5 percent.

“One of the things we have noticed this year is the increased number of students required to work to help support their families,” Parsley said. “When we do exit interviews with our students and communicate where they are as far as make up work and gaining credits, many of them are talking about needing to work to support their families. They are part of the income level in their household.”

Parsley stated that another trend they are seeing is difficulty getting official transcripts for some students. Those who enter the district at 17 or 18 who cannot demonstrate what classes they have taken may struggle to reach the 25 credits necessary for graduation before they age out of public school. Board member Jean Wylie asked why the district could not obtain transcripts from a previous school.

“So, you are right, students coming from other schools within the state, those transcripts are relatively easy to get,” Parsley said. “But we have students coming here from other countries and that is a little different. For example, after the storms in Puerto Rico a few years ago, families came to the United States. Many of the schools were demolished and there are no records. That is very difficult to piece together.”

Dr. Bridget Amory, Director of Student Learning, explained that there is support for those students to help them recover those credits as well as steps they can try to take to get transcripts from other countries. However, there is also an issue with determining whether the classes taken in another country equate to the same or a similar class in this country. The district works with the student and the Department of Education to match credits so that the student starts in Milford with as many credits as possible.

“We have an increased number of students who have a combination problem,” Parsley said. “They are older, and they have low credits. It makes it really difficult for them to get to graduation before they reach the age where they can no longer attend. We also have an increased number of students coming to us as unaccompanied youth. Many of them have lived in multiple locations over the past year to 18 months, so it is difficult to get the documentation. For instance, a child may come to us from Texas, but because they never attended school in Texas, we don’t know where to go for those records. The child may not know all the different districts they have attended.”

In an effort to address the dropout rate, Milford High School now has four counselors who loop with the students. This allows the counselor to build a relationship with students over the four years they attend and helps them recognize an issue early in order to help the student remain in school. The school is also working on scheduling to be sure any student whose credit count is too low is able to make those credits up as quickly as possible

“Each student has 10 opportunities each year to get credits,” Parsley said. “Over four years, that is 40 opportunities to get 25 credits. We are working with making scheduling changes, creating as many opportunities as we can each year. If a student struggles with a class in the first semester, we can provide them the opportunity in the second semester to make that up. If the issue is a core area, this allows us to provide a recovery option immediately rather than waiting until summer school. We are having success with that right now as well as our After the Bell program where a student can remain after school every day but Friday. It is proctored by our educational paras and students are able to meet with teachers and use Wi-Fi in the building.”

Summer school recovery is another area where the district is trying to address dropout rates.

“This year we will have content specific teachers that will work with students in core subjects to make sure that when students need credit recovery, they have a teacher that knows the content and can help guide them,” Parsley said. “We are now doing exit interviews with the student as well as the parent to find the root cause of why they are thinking about dropping out and some of the steps we can do to help them make an intelligent decision.”

The Attendance and Behavior Support Team (ABC) meats twice each month to discuss social, emotional and other issues that could impact a student remaining in school. The team consists of counselors, psychologists, attendance staff and the visiting teacher if truancy is an issue. English-learner interventionists work with families to try to bring students back into the building as well as help keep students involved.

“One extra support we do offer is called Apple Testing,” Dr. Amory said. “This is testing performed in a native language so they can earn credit for that native language, if they happen to speak Spanish, French Creole, Chinese or whatever it may be. When a student is able to test out of that world language, we can give them the credit they would need for high school through that testing. That gives them flexibility through their schedule to take other classes they may want to pursue or in other pathways.”

School board Vice President Rony Baltazar-Lopez asked for an explanation of the exit interview process for a student who is considering dropping out.

“It is really between the counselor and the administrative team,” Parsley said. “Is it attendance? Is it behavior? Is it socio-economic? What is the ultimate goal for that student and based on the ultimate goal, how can we tailor what we can do for that student in our building to get them to the next level? So, if it is a work-related issue, we provide them Career Technology Education pathways to give them the skills to enter the workforce at a higher pay. If it is a credit issue and they just don’t see how they can get to graduation with their cohort, we provide them with guidance to be sure they are taking the right classes at the right time to get to graduation. A lot of time they just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it is our job to show them there is a light. It is very similar to what we do with special education students, provide them with an individualized education plan.”

Parsley stated that it is often simply showing a student not only how they can get to graduation, but also the pitfalls of dropping out at an early age in the long term. He explained that young people cannot see five or eight years from now, so it is all about providing them with that guidance. This is also true of parents because, many times, even the parents are unable to see how a student can graduate. Baltazar-Lopez also asked if Parsley had any preliminary numbers for the 2020-21 school year.

“I believe we had 40 students who withdrew in August, September and October,” Parsley said. “When we look at those students, age was the factor. Of the 9th grade students, the average age of those 9th graders was 18 years old. The seven seniors who withdrew had an average age of almost 21, so age is playing a key role in this. Age and credit.”

Baltazar-Lopez stated that if employment was a primary reason many students were withdrawing from school, how could the district motivate them to remain in school when their families depended on them for income.

“We don’t have the answer for that, and I doubt if you talked to administrators across the state, they would be trying to figure out the same thing,” Parsley said. “The key pieces here are the number of credits a student earns at any given time, the age of that student and the mindset of that student as far as I am not going to make it to graduation, so I should just enter the workforce now. If we can create an environment where they are closer to graduation and they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, they will hopefully put off the workforce until they get their high school diploma.”

Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, explained that the pandemic has led many young people to enter the workforce with the ability to learn virtually.

“Some students almost try to work during the day and do their studies online asynchronously at night,” Dr. Dickerson said. “I think since this virus began, actually last April and May, we saw more students have jobs during the day. That has continued since we have been in virtual and hybrid environments. That is one discussion we have to have as we start planning for next year. Obviously, we want these students in classes with our teachers and the rest of the support staff we have in the building.”

Baltazar-Lopez suggested getting community stakeholder input, suggesting that, at the district level, some sort of committee could be established with parents involved, district staff involved, to address the dropout rate. Parsley stated that there was no such committee at this time, but it may be beneficial.

“I would like to interject, we do have the Building Bridges program established this year,” Dr. Amory said. “It was initially started just for English learning families but has been expanded to include all families. It is intended to provide them with opportunities to engage with the school district and that certainly could be one of the vehicles we use in this area. We already have a variety of families that participate regularly, and we do have community involvement depending on the them or topic each month.”

Board member Jean Wylie was pleased that the high school counselors follow the same students over four years.

“It is important for them to build those attachments,” Wylie said. “Many times, when they are in high school, they are “I am grown up and I can do what I want,” the attitude. And sometimes it is the job opportunities. Because they are helping their family survive and we need to know those economic conditions. I really feel they need that connection to get them from 9th to 12th grade because when they are in elementary school, they have that connection. At that age, they need that follow-up.”

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