Helping Policymakers Understand High School Redesign: Dropout Prevention And Persistence to Graduation

Helping Policymakers Understand High School Redesign: Dropout Prevention And Persistence to Graduation
Helping Policymakers Understand High School Redesign: Dropout Prevention And Persistence to Graduation

In 2001, the Kentucky Board of Education adopted a strategic plan based on the long-term goal of all schools and students reaching a high standard of proficiency by 2014. The board established ambitious goals for high student performance, high quality teaching and administration, and a strong, supportive environment for each school and every child.  Since 2001, progress has been made in a number of areas and Kentucky schools and students continue to move toward proficiency.

Several structures have been put into place at the state-level over time that are specifically targeted at preventing dropouts, such as the 2000 Comprehensive Dropout Prevention Strategy, the Minority Student Achievement Gap Task Force, and the State Dropout Prevention Grant Program. Other initiatives provide resources at the local level that can be used to prevent dropouts at the discretion of the local district, such as Extended School Services, Secondary GED, Alternative Education Programs, and Family Resource/Youth Services Centers. Overall, none of these initiatives alone has had substantial impact on reducing the dropout rate statewide. As part of a systemic approach inside a local district, any and all can play a part in highly effective programs.

During the trip we met with state and district leaders, and these meetings provided time to delve deeper into the strategies and policies used to support high school redesign and dropout prevention. We met with students, teachers, and school leaders to hear about their on-the-ground experiences with reform efforts. Meetings and site visits helped provide context to the invaluable discussions and peer learning opportunities throughout the trip.


Dropout Prevention and Persistence to Graduation»


High School Redesign in Kentucky – Panel Presentation by State Officials, KY Department of Education

Michael Miller, Division Director of Curriculum; Faith Thompson, Branch Manager of Secondary Education;  Nijel Clayton, Branch Manager of Dropout Prevention; Cindy Parker, Branch Manager of English Language Arts

Michael Miller noted that Kentucky’s Department of Education (KDE) has been looking at dropout prevention in multiple ways, across many programs. The process has not been linear, as all types of policies have to be considered to focus on high school retention and completion. The varied policy changes include instituting a minimum graduation requirement (which consists of 22 credits, 4 English and 3 of math, science, social studies), joining the American Diploma Project, and requiring all students to take Algebra I, II and geometry. Students have to take some math every year that they are in high school and the state is working on what those classes might look like for 11th and 12th grade students, tied to their Individual Learning Plan (ILP).  In reiterating that the focus at the secondary school level is not just on dropout prevention (DRP), but in helping every student succeed, Miller emphasized that they believe supports have to begin in elementary school.  ILPs are required by the state, have to be developed electronically in 6th grade, and need to include a focus on applied learning as part of a career path. Although ILPs are required for the Class of 2012, no funding is available from the state to support this requirement. Regulations also require that the ILP be updated several times a year to make sure it is current based on the student’s needs and interest.

Most Kentucky districts require more than 22 credits for graduation; Jefferson County Public Schools requires 22. Each district is allowed to make decisions about what courses would count toward high school graduation. Thus districts decide what integrated, applied, interdisciplinary or technical courses that prepare students for a career path will count, e.g. construction geometry could replace regular geometry.  A writing portfolio is required as part of high school graduation and some districts use that as part of an accountability system, but it is not required by the state.

KDE has a school and district accountability system; the state does not require individual students to meet any score or pass a test in order to graduate. Schools and districts, not students, are held accountable for making progress. Since students are not held accountable, they do not care so much about the tests and may not perform as well. The state has enacted a new requirement that every student take the ACT.  They use the Explore, Plan, ACT sequence, and cover the costs of those assessments. Those assessments only count for 5% of accountability, however.

Faith Thompson stressed the importance of language use, noting that rather than simply focusing on dropout prevention, “we use the term ‘persistence to graduation, to postsecondary, and to the workforce,’ so it is not so negative.”   Some discussion focused on how you avoid tracking with the ILPs, so that advisors and teachers do not track students into lower track classes.  State officials responded that that is a cultural shift they are trying to make.

The KDE is working on three key items as part of their Refocusing Secondary Education Initiative: Core Instruction (the 22 credit requirement, discussed above); interventions; and transitions.

Interventions:  KDE has created voluntary assistance teams that conduct a scholastic and cultural audit of the school and rank the school in terms of where they are and then develop appropriate recommendations. KDE also works with the school districts to provide highly skilled educators who spend up to three years working with a low-performing school or district. They use the KY accountability system to determine low-performing schools. There are three tiers of assistance – the lowest performing schools get a highly skilled educator for three years in several subjects; the middle tier of schools may get one educator; the better performing schools share educators.  This is an expensive intervention, costing the state $5.5 million, but has been proven to be effective and most schools that go through the program with the highly skilled educators improve and get off the at-risk list.

Cindy Parker addressed state literacy initiatives, noting that there is almost no funding for literacy in the upper grades, and that they are trying to align literacy instruction from middle to high school that supports the graduation requirements.  A five-year grant from the Striving Readers program is being used to implement a statewide program for 23 middle and high schools.  The grant provides supports to teachers and instructional interventions to students who are below grade level in reading. Striving Readers trains literacy coaches for sixth- and ninth-grade students who are at least two years behind grade level and provides instruction in small classes (10 students per class), for a half day. This addresses the state’s lack of certified teachers in reading interventions.   There are also literacy instructors who work with the rest of the teachers in the building. Other literacy efforts include state funding for adolescent literacy coaches, and a NASBE-funded summit on literacy held in September, 2007.  A 2008 task force recommended to the state board of education that a framework for schools on adolescent literacy should address:  remedying the lack of certified teachers to teach reading interventions and encouraging more teachers to become certified in teaching reading to older students; developing alternative routes to becoming a certified literacy instructor; requiring all schools to have a literacy plan in place, starting with pilot schools. The state board of education plans on piloting four to ten school districts each year, then will require all schools to have such a plan.

Transitions: The state is working on improving the transition of students from high school to college and work. KDE is focusing on literacy skills across the content areas and the attainment of 21st century skills. State efforts concentrate on increasing Advanced Placement (AP) course taking through a STEM grant and creating Early College High Schools on math and science. The KY Virtual School helps deal with the  lack of highly qualified teachers in all schools and school districts of the state. The KY Virtual School offers 23 AP courses and it also provides professional development.

Nigel Clayton concluded the state presentation, drawing attention to several initiatives:

  • Competitive grants with state funding available to schools that have been in place for 20 years. These grants are for $720,000 per year for two-year grants to schools, and 75 percent of the funds must go to dropout prevention in elementary and middle schools.
  • Action plan for Alternative Education that provides support for these programs. They are not schools, so they do not report their own test data, but the data goes back to the home schools.
  • No Pass, No Drive legislation that applies to 16-17 year olds, based on attendance, grades and course failures.
  • Transformed role of school counselors, whereby school preparation programs and the counselors association are being consulted, to position counselors as school leaders. This effort is encountering resistance.

Clayton also clarified the difference between two types of Alternative Education.  A5 is a district operated and district controlled facility. There are 45 000 students in this system. Students with behavior problems are sent to A5 schools.

A6 facilities are for state agency children (wards of the state).  There are 110 schools in 54 school districts across the state. School district teachers go into non-district institutions, and on any given day there are 23 000 students in these schools. The state is very concerned about services provided to students and wants to make sure services are equitable.

Dropout Prevention in Jefferson County Public Schools – An Overview

Marty Bell, Deputy to the Superintendent; Joe Burks, Assistant Superintendent, High Schools

Marty Bell commented that the US Department of Education’s policy on counting students who drop out provides the wrong incentives to schools. It does not encourage schools to keep students and bring them back in, and the policy should be changed.  He noted that JCPS is implementing dropout prevention by trying to focus more attention on early warning signals, but not every school is doing this. “At the district level, we are focusing on prevention, monitoring, mentoring, and intervention.”  We have specific programs in each of these areas and provide appropriate services based on the needs of the students. Some of the interventions include a code of behavior; safe and drug-free schools; STOP suspension and a truancy off-site program; POP – Positive Outreach Program; K-4 grades Assessment Center; truancy court; parent prosecution; behavior specialist; and the Student Recovery Program. This last program helps K-12 students that have fallen farthest behind. Each school receives $25,000 to improve academic performance, attendance, student behavior, and course success, with the proviso that services must be focused on the 25 most at-risk students in the school.  In addition, the district has alternative education programs.   The District does not expel students.   It has not expelled a student since the mid 1970’s.  The alternative education programs are special programs to address all students’ educational needs including those students who have had behavioral issues.

Kentucky education reform created the Family Resources and Youth Service Centers to reduce barriers to educational success. The Centers, staffed by social worker-type individuals, were created to deal with issues around low-income housing, medical assistance, and homework help. Centers are funded by the state and each school with a center receives between $35,000 – $92,000 to run it.

The Louisville Education and Employment Partnership (LEEP) provides a career planner in each school, assisting students to get through high school.  The city pays about 40 percent of the cost for this program, with the school system contributing another 40 percent of the funding.  The remaining 20 percent is paid by United Way and private fund raising.

Site Visit to Breckinridge High School

Maurice Risner, Executive Director of Student Relations and Safety, JCPS, provided some opening remarks by emphasizing, “We fight to keep kids in the mainstream, but it doesn’t always work. Our goal is to work with kids, nurture them, provide assessment and counseling, rather than suspend them.”

A range of schools is offered in JCPS.  The district has 14 magnet career academies (district magnet choice programs) and 107 separate career major programs. There are also alternative education programs, which benefit from strong district leadership.  These programs are not housed in the oldest buildings, staffed by teachers that do not want to be there, or supplied with old books.  Rather, alternative education programs receive good resources and staff that then empowers them to work with the students.  A separate funding stream for alternative education was set up in 1981. It is not based on per pupil expenditure, but is a line item in the budget. Funding is based on maximum capacity for each school based on how restrictive it is. There is no funding for transition counselors except for students with IEPs.

Jack Jacobs, Principal, Breckinridge High School, shared that the school serves students that have been involved in the juvenile justice system, in mostly criminal activities. Jacobs commented how very hard it was to keep these students in school. Many students arrive, 17 years old, with only two credits.  Jacobs noted, “We work on credit recovery with students that have 3rd-grade level skills. We start talking about college as soon as they enroll, we provide wrap-around services, therapists, lots of staff.”  The teaching staff is assisted by four police officers, four security officers, eight instructional assistants, and two behavioral assistants.  Teachers receive lots of training in supporting students, for example engaging in emotional and verbal de-escalation activities.   Students experience an eight-period day, (each period is 42 minutes), have two minutes for passing time to minimize hall disruptions, and receive no homework, because students cannot bring anything into the school.  The school offers two graduations a year. Students learn about college prospects through visits from Jefferson Community College (JCC), and many students go to JCC and the school works with JCC advisors. The challenge, however, is the lack of funding for transitioning services to college.

A panel of Breckinridge students shared their experiences at the school, noting how they had matured during their time there, how helpful teachers have been in assisting their growth, and their plans for college.  They credited the structure and rules at the school for their progress, as well as their ability to take more credits per year than the regular school, and the smaller class sizes with more individualized attention from teachers.

Jackie Wisman, the principal of Buechel High School, talked about this school that serves students who have been suspended. The staff focuses on making the facility more like a school, and less like a prison.  Students are constantly told they are college material and are treated with kindness.  The minimum stay is 12 weeks; some students stay a year. Of 270 students, 211 have transitioned back to regular school this year.

Kennedy Metro Middle School staff commented on this school for elementary and middle school students.  There are 250 students, with between 10-15 children per class. At present there are 20 elementary students, aged 9-10, with three teachers. The student body is comprised of students that have been suspended for intimidation or harassment, and the minimum stay is 12 weeks.   Middle school students follow the core content so they stay on track. They engage in lots of hands-on learning and projects.  Additional supports are provided through the building-wide Champs program, DARE, and Girl Scouts.

Peer-to-Peer Learning

During the peer-to peer learning session, participants on the trip discussed the dropout rate calculation, noting that data from cohorts of students should be used in conjunction with data from those in the twelfth grade.  In thinking through what to do with incarcerated students, they postulated that we need to provide five to six years for them to complete high school.  Other topics of discussion focused on the development of early warning indicators, and counseling needs.  Louisiana has an early warning system that looks at attendance, discipline, and a drop in grades.  The state system sends out information to districts and schools where problems have been identified.  With regard to counseling, participants noted that funding is an issue, as is the challenge of having teachers serve as counselors.

Participants shared current focus areas of their individual states:

  • Louisiana is focused on an early warning system, dual enrollment and working with community colleges
  • Virginia is adding a graduation and completion index to their accreditation system for high school
  • Indiana is examining and collecting data, which is driving what is happening in the state.  They have changed the compulsory age for high school attendance to 18 and this forces people to create places for all students.
  • Mississippi is engaged in a public awareness campaign focused on the importance of high school completion and graduation, and changing attitudes on education.

Site Visit to Liberty High School

At this site visit participants learned about Jefferson County High School (JCHS), Liberty High School, and the Family Youth and Service Centers.

Jefferson County High School

Tom Carter, the principal of JCHS, provided an overview of this high school, which dates back to 1986. The school was created to serve students that were struggling, homeless, working, teen parents, or who benefitted from different instructional styles. He commented, “We surround students with relationships.” JCHS is located at various sites across the county; there are currently pilots in six sites in comprehensive high schools.  Academic instruction is provided by the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Center (a lock up facility) and JCPS.  Students also have access to an independent study program, and Eschool.

The structure at Jefferson County High School is comprised of a diploma program; three sessions of instruction per day, offered in three-hour blocks and available year round; a flexible schedule; an open entry and open exit; self-paced, individualized instruction; multiples sites; and graduation upon completion.  All classrooms are staffed by a certified teacher, and highly qualified teachers oversee all instruction.  Students receive one-on-one attention, participate in service learning opportunities, and career fairs.  There are 1635 students under the age of 21, and 265 over the age of 21.   The majority of students are 11th and 12th graders.  Students must complete 22 credits just like all other students and score apprentice or higher on standardized tests. JCHS students have to meet the same minimum standards.

JCPS Eschool has 16,000 students comprised of students in the state, nationally and internationally.
The school serves students beginning in 3rd grade to freshmen in college, including dual enrollment. Students use the school for credit recovery, enrichment, acceleration, instructional interventions, home school, and preparation for lifelong learning.  E-tutorials are available on specific items (e.g. mathematics content, fractions, avoiding plagiarism). College courses are also offered, for example 30 hours for dual credit. All content on E-school is developed in house.

Teachers, principals and parents can monitor student progress. The school motto encapsulates the concept of flexible instruction: any time, any place, any person, any pace. The KY Virtual School focused on Advanced Placement and enrichment, and now the KY Virtual School and JCPS Eschool are merging some of their work to create the College Now program to help more students earn college credit and attain postsecondary education.

Liberty High School

The principal, Iman Talaat, noted that Liberty High School is a decade old, and was established as a safety net for students who have not been successful in other schools, because of truancy, or family problems. There are several programs in Liberty: Grades 7-8 for 14-15 year olds who are repeating; Crossroads for 15-16 year olds who repeated 9th grade; and Discovery for students age 16 and older. Students have to apply to LHS; acceptance is based on need, recommendations, and the evaluation of the assessment center. The school operates on a four-by-four block schedule of 90-minute blocks. There is lots of collaboration between classes and teachers, as well as a great deal of writing across the curriculum.

In the middle school program, 7th graders have to be 14; 8th graders have to be 15 and behind. Students experience learning in small classes, engage in accelerated programs, and participate in a review every three months to assess their progress and to consider adjustments, if necessary. Students can move ahead when they have a C or better in academics, a 90 percent attendance rate, and a good attitude.

The Crossroads program is designed for repeating 9th graders, ages 14-16, who work with a team of three teachers in math, English Language Arts, and science.  Students “go out of the team” for physical education, art and music. Some students get back on track and return to their home high school, some go to their home high school and come back to LHS, and some just want to remain at LHS.

The Discovery program, for students aged 16 and older, is focused on identifying talents, improving self-esteem, and helping students learn how to interact with others. After nine weeks, 50 percent of students decided to stay at LHS. At the school core graduation requirements include service learning, as this activity helps students build self-esteem by giving to others.  A senior project is also a requirement for graduation at LHS. Students select a mentor to help with the project.  They must conduct a PowerPoint presentation and can redo a project if they do not pass the first time.

Family Resource and Youth Service Center

One of the Family Resource and Youth Services Centers is located at LHS. The center provides services to students and families, and addresses those dealing with crises, homelessness, foster care, and broken families. In addition to the Family Resource and Youth Service Center personnel, students and their families also receive support from home-school coordinators, who reach out to parents.  These coordinators, and the FRYSC staff provide health information, mental health assistance, counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, and employment counseling.

Site Visit to South Central Neighborhood Place

Larry Michalcyzk of the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children provided a history of how Neighborhood Places came to be. In JCPS and Louisville, there was a group of leaders across various agencies who met on a regular basis. They represented schools, Louisville-Jefferson County metro government, public health, housing, Kentuckiana Works, Medicaid, local health, mental health, etc.  The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) required school-based Family Resource and Youth Services Centers to be established, in recognition of how non-school based issues prevent learning. All the partners started meeting, creating a plan for the FRYSC. This effort evolved into the Neighborhood Place concept. These Places co-locate services in needy neighborhoods and are a voluntary effort across partners. Their goal is to get students ready for learning. The first Neighborhood Place was created in 1993, and there are now eight of these centers.  What distinguishes a Neighborhood Place is the single intake and assessment process; a team approach; a common release form; and the community focus.

Nancy Lasky, the Administrator of the South Central Neighborhood Place, noted that facility sees an average of 225-250 families a day. High demand services include WIC, services for pregnant women, food stamps and children’s medical needs.  The school system shares data on students with other social services (e.g. truancy, attendance).  The common goals of all providers who participate in Neighborhood Place include improving economic self-sufficiency; improving the health of mothers and children; reducing violence, and improving student success.

The staff includes JCPS truancy officers and school social workers who mentor students who are at risk of dropping out during the transition from grade 8 to grade 9.  Marti Kinny, the ESL coordinator at Hazelwood Elementary School, shared that only 5 percent of students are ELLs in JCPS, but there is high diversity, with 75 languages being spoken.  The district experiences a challenge of educating teachers on teaching ELLs. Teacher preparation is being addressed through the Fast Track program at the University of Louisville, which helps teachers to get ESL endorsements.

An additional challenge is that 20 percent of students new to JCPS do not have formal education, so they are basically illiterate in their own language. It is especially hard when students arrive and they are in middle or high school.  Kinny commented that they had established a Newcomer Center in 2007, for secondary school students who are not literate in their primary language. These students stay for one to three semesters, and then usually transfer to a regular high school. The Refugee Immigrant Task Force meets on a regular basis to share information.

Annette Darnell, the Family Resource and Youth Service Center Coordinator at Hazelwood Elementary School, noted, “We think that waiting until middle and high school is too late. We start working with students in elementary school to make sure they stay on track.”  Hazelwood’s personnel work with FRYSC personnel to address health issues, for example, which can led to absenteeism. Annette concluded, “If students have lots of absences in elementary school, this could lead to dropping out later on, and we want to avoid that.”

Other Information of Note

The Senior Mandala project at Liberty High School: Click on Mandala and This I Believe

Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy April 2008 Presentation: Signs that Matter – Using Early Indicators to Lower the Dropout Rate  Click on “Research Presentations

Louisville, Kentucky

Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth – Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky

Neighborhood Place Powerpoint: Working Together for Families»

Neighborhood Place 2007 Powerpoint Services and Outcomes Report»

Jefferson County Public Schools Powerpoint – Dropout Prevention»

Kentucky Department of Education Powerpoint – Dropout Prevention»


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