Dropout Reengagement Network Progress & Challenges

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This week’s convening of the NLC Dropout Reengagement Network in Denver provides a chance to recognize progress in a rapidly growing field – and acknowledge key challenges going forward.

Perhaps most notably, the Network that meets this week is twice as extensive as it was last year. It’s inspiring to see additional cities start centers, including Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa, as well as Chicago, Camden, Trenton, Los Angeles, and Pasadena. It’s great to have folded in New York City, with its five centers. It’s humbling to witness the continuing commitment and innovations of the longer-standing centers in Philadelphia, Boston, and Newark and the virtual approach in Colorado. We need to celebrate this growth and the spread of a sound idea! At the “bottom line,” surely this growth means that centers have reconnected many hundreds of students – if not thousands- with an education pathway. Most will have earned at least some credits. Some will have graduated.

As it grows, the Network displays real vitality. For instance, we’ve had serious and strategic conversations about topics such as how best to measure and account for what Centers do. And, experienced center staff have graciously assisted those just starting out.

Reengagement Centers are also far more visible than one year ago. The US Department of Education took formal notice of this innovation by hosting a presentation and letting a contract for a how-to guide. The Boston and Chicago centers constitute elements of the comprehensive violence reduction strategy supported by the US Department of Justice. Center operators led discussions in three national conference settings, including one with funders. One of those funders, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, specifically named reengagement centers as a key facet of the infrastructure it wants to support through its newly laid out disconnected youth strategy. And in Massachusetts, the Rennie Center think tank wrote the nation’s first detailed policy brief on reengagement centers and convened a forum focused on spreading the Boston model statewide.

Alongside the good news, centers face several challenges. For example, consider these four.

1) Measuring progress and outcomes, assessing quality: Most centers collect similar, useful statistics, often oriented toward process measures. Some can readily calculate a “stick rate” for students’ school persistence once re-enrolled. It’s often harder to get at outcomes, in a way that would permit understanding or compare efficiency and quality of services.

2) Postsecondary linkages and goals: Reengagement centers with high school graduation as the key objective are spreading—even as dominant policy discussions center on access to and completion of postsecondary credentials. Thus, integrating or adding objectives tied to current labor market needs constitutes a near horizon item for individual centers and the network.

3) Accountability structures: The reigning accountability cocktail of No Child Left Behind, state waivers, and Common Core Standards draw much of the attention of school districts, and regularly work at cross purposes to, or ignore, the reengagement agenda. Reengagement advocates need to build alliances likely to push for a community-wide frame for accountability for all young people, not just those who happen to remain enrolled in traditional schools.

4) Sustainability: Appropriately, soft money from federal and foundation grants has helped launch or expand most reengagement centers. Now, the network needs to muster the various types of capital needed to sustain efforts.

As the 2012 convening begins, I have every confidence that the NLC Dropout Reengagement Network will rise to the occasion, to leverage growth and opportunity and tackle challenges as they arise.