From Low-Skilled to College Ready: Building Pathways for All Youth Who Drop Out- Part 3

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Flickr: Gates Foundation

This post was written by Peter Kleinbard, a consultant who works with organizations serving adolescents. It is the third in a series on dropout reengagement, drawn from the case study: For Young Adults Who Drop Out: Pathways or Merely Stops along the Way? which details the work of two community organizations. The study is funded by the William T. Grant Foundation and The Pinkerton Foundation. To comment, write peterkleinbard@Verizon.net.

In the previous post I highlighted two programs for young adults who have dropped out of school and how they have gained flexibility by convincing funders to support longer periods of service. This post focuses on a major gap in serving youth who have dropped out, the quality of classroom work.

Many young adults drop out because of their struggles in the classroom. While our field has often focused on counseling and work experiences, further education is essential to achieve economic independence.

In the study, Dropping Out: Why Students Drop out of High School and What Can Be Done About It, Russell Rumbergpulls together leading research and concludes: “educational performance…is the single most important predictor of whether students drop out or graduate from high school.” Academics are highlighted again in a recent study that tracked a single cohort of New York City students from elementary through high school: “and only one in three of the students who failed to meet the third-grade [English Language Arts] standard [emphasis added] graduated from high school.”

While numerous factors may contribute to dropping out, such as those highlighted in America’s Promise Alliance’s recent report, disengagement stemming from academic struggles is nearly always central. For young adults to build skills in reading, writing, oral communication and math, they must become engaged in learning. When instruction is done well, young adults take pleasure in learning.

Interviewed youth affirmed research findings as to what keeps them engaged in learning:

  • High interest materials
  • Activities that feel tailored to them as individuals
  • A sense of control from knowing where they stand and what more they need to achieve
  • Caring staff who expresses belief in their success

A Model for Engaging Young Adults in Academic Study

In my study, Site A adopted a model developed by an intermediary rather than creating its own program. Community Education Pathways to Success (CEPS) integrates research findings from youth development with those from instruction and is designed to address the needs and strengths specific to young adults. In this guide, I focus on the literacy component, though the work in math is similar. (For purposes of transparency, I was involved in the development of CEPS.)

The program created a structure of progressively more demanding classes, so that a young adult who enters at any skill level can move up to college preparation. Teachers receive training and ongoing coaching in delivering instruction. For example, they are taught to use high-interest books at reading levels that enable students to experience mastery. Assessments are used both to place students in classes and to target specific skill gaps. Non-instructional staff are trained how to reinforce the work of instructors and meets regularly with instructors as a team to strategize about students. The emphasis is on consistent and systematic application in the classroom and other program components.

Classes are highly structured and therefore follow the same sequence of activities each day. Work is familiar and comfortable to students, even as it increases in difficulty. While focusing on instruction, the model reshapes the entire program as an integrated whole, addressing counseling, transition planning and other components.

Following an encouraging evaluation, the city in which Site A is based adopted the model and is funding several sites to implement it, adding a work experience component. These and other strategies are detailed in documentation about the model and a three-year evaluation of eight sites.

As readers know, the path to financial independence is long and uneven for many young people, especially those with poor skills. For students that desire immediate work experience, Site A’s staff tries to place them so that their work schedules allow continuation in education. In other sites, young adults who had gained solid work skills – carpentry or using common software – acquired jobs, though rarely steady, that provided income so that they could continue their studies. Although many returned, for others there were periodic hiatuses in their participation.

Our challenge as a field is to make sure that we support the hopes for success of young adults with engaging and effective programs. Some are ready to move ahead when they come to our doors; others will need time before they are ready to sustain their commitment. For practitioners, this requires flexibility, a high degree of commitment, and a determination to find and implement approaches with solid evidence of success.

Peter KleinbardAbout the Author: Peter Kleinbard is a consultant who works with organizations serving adolescents. From 2001 until 2010, he was executive director of the Youth Development Institute, a national intermediary based in New York City. He also founded the Youth Transition Funders, an affinity group for foundations.