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Don’t Call Them Dropouts

By Sandy Husk, CEO, AVID Center

As we engaged in our weeklong Commit to Student Success campaign, it was gratifying to see the participation of our AVID campuses across the nation. Our Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as other social media networks, were lit up with photos of AVID students and site teams engaged in academic and community activities focused on what success looks like, issuing thanks to those who support them, and making good use of the toolkit that we created for the campaign. It is clear that AVID is touching many lives in a positive way across entire campuses nationwide.

Nevertheless, I am still concerned that we are not doing enough.

We still have millions of students whom we are not reaching—who miss opportunities, who languish without challenging courses, and who lack the kind of support and guidance that we provide in AVID.

This was brought home for me recently in the report "Don’t Call Them Dropouts" from John Gomperts and the staff at the America’s Promise Alliance. This is the organization begun by Alma and Colin Powell, and I am honored to be a trustee for the Alliance. The research done for this study was extensive and included hundreds of individual interviews, 3,000 surveys, and 30 group interviews in 16 cities. (I recommend you download the executive summary or entire report.) As I read the study, a few key points emerged:

  • “Dropout” is really a misnomer, as many students who we think have left us actually return to our educational system in some fashion.
  • Four themes prevailed: 1) Clusters of factors, not one thing, led to students leaving; 2) Toxic environments in the community and at home (e.g., violence, ill health) had great impact; 3) Students, especially those who are low-income or at-risk, need supportive connections (i.e., relationships are key); and 4) Young people are very resilient, but need support to thrive.
  • To “reach up” and aspire, students need connections with adults and peers, such as those that we provide in AVID.
  • Clusters of factors are numerous—25 different factors impacted them, not in isolation (e.g., gangs, school setting, violence, absent parents, death of family members).
  • Toxic environments create long-term, negative effects, including violence and health issues; schools often did NOT provide safe havens (this disturbs me greatly, as schools can and should provide a safe haven); homelessness and pressure to be a caregiver or wage-earner created an urgency to leave. In 12 of 16 cities, survey respondents noted that school policies (e.g., discipline and difficulty to recover credits among them) made it difficult for challenged students to persist. This is an area that AVID site teams can and must impact.
  • There is a yearning for supportive connections; in all 16 communities, young people cited relationships as critical in their decisions to stay or leave. They also said that they had made attempts to reach out to adults, but were unsuccessful. Encouragement from a key adult was a major factor in their choosing to return to school.

In AVID, we serve about 700,000 students currently, and I have charged our staff to dramatically increase that number by 2020. This is one of our organization’s moral imperatives. How does AVID mitigate risk factors that can cause students to leave school? We believe that AVID’s schoolwide approach, which focuses on improved instruction, systems, leadership, and culture, can be a key factor. A recent peer-reviewed research study on AVID Schoolwide from the International Journal of Research and Practice on Student Engagement presented a case study of a middle school that implemented AVID as a schoolwide reform effort, determining that AVID’s schoolwide domains—especially instruction, leadership, and culture—are well developed.

Before AVID’s schoolwide implementation, the researchers note, “Magnolia Grove (a fictitious name given to a South Carolina AVID site) was considered a school to avoid, with its gang violence, low academic achievement, and pervasive sense of hopelessness… At that time, many students felt disengaged from the school community and dropped out soon after entering high school.”

Today, as explained by the researchers, the school is very different, characterized by high levels of student and staff engagement and rising achievement.

Certainly, the AVID Elective environment—with caring, well-trained professionals, college tutors, academic training, and a strong, positive peer influence—has been cited in many studies. The leadership of the principal and the AVID site team cannot be overstated for their significance in spreading AVID’s support schoolwide. While we present AVID as a college-readiness effort, it is not surprising that it has also been studied as a dropout prevention program.

In my last superintendency in Oregon, I could look out my window and see McKay High School. I watched the students coming and going, I read their data, and I observed their classrooms and activities. It weighed heavy on my heart to know there were hundreds of students going to McKay who were not living up to their potential, either because of the circumstances of the neighborhoods that they had grown up in or due to our failure to reach them in a positive and productive manner.

In 2006, we were losing close to 200 students from McKay on an annual basis. It made me want to cry, and scream, and move mountains to turn that tide around. For three years, we focused on quality of staff and great professional development, while providing time and encouragement, data, and community support. By the time that I left Salem-Keizer School District, McKay had only three students who didn't complete their diploma in the spring of 2013. The credit goes to the students themselves, their parents and families, the community, and the amazing faculty in that school and district. AVID’s support and professional learning also made an important difference.

We can do this. We can help millions of children reach their potential. We can be supportive at the same time that we wake up each morning with a sense of urgency to fight for what is right.

We can do this together. Commit to their success.


For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.

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