Since 2011, the four-year high school graduation rate has been inching steadily upward, growing from 79% to 85% in 2018. But experts fear that 2020 could sharply reverse this trendline.
Education leaders are predicting a sizable increase in the number of high school dropouts during the 2020-2021 school year. With more than half of school districts using hybrid or remote models, they fear struggling students will disengage from their school systems without a fully in-person option. Amid an economic crisis with high unemployment rates, more teachers report that their students are opting to work hourly jobs to help support their families. Others are taking care of siblings in lieu of stable childcare. Compounding these issues is the fact that many students still lack access to the appropriate technology to complete online schooling.
Earlier this month, a national coalition of education and civic groups, including the National League of Cities and the American Institutes for Research, met to discuss strategies for reengaging students and work to get a handle on the numbers of new dropouts the country could be facing. They discussed fears that this group of students has not received adequate attention.
“I think the really simple answer is we’re pretty nervous,” said Monika Kincheloe, who leads the GradNation campaign out of America’s Promise Alliance, an alliance of groups dedicated to improving the lives of young people. GradNation was launched in 2010 with the goal of getting the four-year high school graduation rate up to 90% by the class of 2020. Now that goal feels substantially more out of reach.
“No one seems to be thinking about this or paying attention to this idea that we could just lose large groups of young people right now in the high school years,” Kincheloe said.
Anxiety over this issue started last spring when schools first transitioned to remote learning. Some districts failed to get in touch with thousands of students who never signed on for learning or responded to teachers’ attempts to connect. In South Carolina, by May, an estimated 5% of students, or roughly 40,000 kids, had failed to hand in a single assignment during remote learning.
At that point, though, the issue was lower stakes for the oldest students: Most seniors had the credits they needed to graduate, and schools were also waiving requirements around grading and attendance.
This year, experts worry after months at home, struggling students will be on a path to missing important credits, making it impossible for them to graduate on time without stark intervention. The barriers to success at school can be far steeper when students are learning from home, they note.
“If you can get yourself to the building, the school will tell you what to do. Now that doesn’t exist.”
Without involved parents, students may have to figure out on their own how to obtain a laptop or hot spot, said Robert Balfanz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Everyone Graduates Center. Kids who were dependent on asking their teachers or peers for help to understand the material are more disconnected from their built-in support systems.
“If you can get yourself to the building, the school will tell you what to do. Now that doesn’t exist,” said Balfanz. “It’s the academic side, but also the connection to school which is so important. If you’re on your own and asked to figure out a lot on your own, it’s easy to get frustrated and feel hopeless.”
A survey of students from America’s Promise found that over 20% of students were not feeling connected to their school communities at the end of last year.
“Not everyone will be so disengaged they won’t earn credits, but a good chunk of them would be,” he said. “I think there’s worry there’s some kids who have already dropped out.”
Balfanz worries about seniors. But he also worries about how this time will impact another group of students also going through a transitional period: ninth-graders making the leap to high school. In a new environment, with less hand-holding, it might be difficult for them to make the connection to school that would keep them engaged. He worries that this time will have repercussions for these students even years down the line.
“They’re not getting that sense of community or even know who their teachers are. It’s all from a distance,” he said.
But keeping track of disengaged students, especially in communities where families are struggling to meet their basic needs, requires a level of proactivity that many schools haven’t initiated, too wrapped up in immediate concerns about health and instruction.
In Newburgh, New York, school Superintendent Roberto Padilla has created an engagement team that knocks on families’ doors to check in, targeting families who have neglected online learning. The district is starting this year remotely.
The team was first created in the spring after the district saw that significant students were failing to log on or respond to teacher emails.
“Week after week, students were not responding or participating in a Zoom or Google Meet or submitting work. We were learning there were students who, in essence, were just disappearing and that prompted us to do as much outreach as we could,” said Padilla.
At first, the district of 12,000 didn’t hear from close to 2,000 families. After starting the reengagement process, which involved first checking to see if students and families were safe ― indeed, the community had already lost the vice president of its school board to COVID-19 ― and then checking on families’ internet capabilities through home visits, that number shrunk to around 175.
This fall, the team is also partnering with local community and faith-based organizations to help connect with families. “It’s about identifying those organizations that have a real reach to families, who support families perhaps with social services, who know families perhaps more intimately than a new teacher would,” said Padilla.
The efforts, though, shouldn’t all fall on individual districts. Padilla is dismayed that there’s been no national guidance on the issue, or at least some efforts to build a national strategy to reengage students.
“I’m concerned we could see an increase in dropouts in districts all across the state and country,” he said.
By October, education groups hope to have a better understanding of the numbers of students who have effectively dropped out, or may be at risk of doing so soon. The groups are meeting monthly, sharing strategies and hoping to get started on releasing guidance.
If districts don’t start dealing with this issue until January or February, “it will be too late for those students,” said Bryan Joffee, project director of education and youth development for The School Superintendents Association.
“There needs to be a campaign starting now that wakes up schools and community agencies and cities and counties to the idea that we need to rally around our students and families this year,” said Joffee, who has been in touch with superintendents on the issue.
But amid the many stressors districts are facing — including questions over when to reopen fully in person, how to keep kids safe when they do reopen, how to pay for the cost of implementing social distancing measures and how to handle staffing issues — leaders worry this has become an afterthought.
“I’ve had people say it could set us back 20 years, that’s the consequence. We’re going to become a country where there’s a class of people who are Black and brown, low-income Indigenous, who aren’t going to get the same shot,” said Kincheloe.