By Matthew Tungate
Kirsten Estep, the Positive Approach to Student Success (PASS) coach at Madison Southern High School (Madison County), is teaching a new class twice a day this year called Career Connections. In it, students who are at risk of dropping out of school or are struggling academically find out what it takes to enter the workforce by learning things like resume writing and interview skills, appropriate dress for the workplace and job requirements.
Estep said many of the students don’t realize how difficult it is to get a job, especially if they drop out and get a GED.
Madison Southern Principal David Gilliam said many students find themselves at risk of not graduating because they have either no goals or ones that are unrealistic.
“The Career Connections class is to let them see what’s out there and help them identify the things they would like to do, and then they can see high school graduation as an integral part of that plan.”
What sets the class apart from similar initiatives throughout the state is that it was filled entirely with students identified through the Persistence to Graduation Tool (PtGT). The tool creates a report with a list of students ranked in descending order on numerous research-based risk factors. As schools analyze the list, they can provide targeted interventions based on the factors indicated for each student. The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has compiled resources to assist schools with identifying appropriate strategies and interventions.
Gilliam said Madison Southern staff ran the report last year and realized they had to do something for the students on it. Estep worked with district-level staff to design the class, he said. He ran the report again between semesters and assigned new students to the class for the second half of the year, Gilliam said.
Bonnie Tomberlin, an education academic program consultant at KDE, said the Persistence to Graduation work is based on indicators identified by The National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University and Johns Hopkins University researcher Bob Belfanz.
She said the indicators are established for grades 8-12 and include research from urban and rural areas. While having only one of the indicators, such as being male, doesn’t necessarily put a child at risk for not graduating, having numerous risk factors may, Tomberlin said.
She said researchers are now looking at risk factors in lower grade levels, with a goal of being able to identify students who are at risk as early as elementary school.
“They may be lost by the time they get to 8th grade,” she said. “There may be enough that has happened in their little life that will keep them from getting to 12th grade.”
As a Knox County Middle School GEAR UP academic specialist, Tonya Allen is responsible for personalizing services to 7th- and 8th-grade students to help them reach high school graduation. More than 560 students receive small-group mentoring. However, some students also receive one-on-one mentoring.
“How do we identify these students? Of course, there are always referrals, but this is subjective and often is based on obvious outward factors,” Allen said. “The PtGT pulls everything from demographics to grade history to generate a list of our most at-risk students.”
Allen said the PtGT also compiles data in five minutes that previously would have taken months to gather.
“It often catches students that may have otherwise eluded the at-risk radar,” she said. “In just a few clicks I can see who is in the greatest need of an extra positive influence in his or her life.”
Gilliam said Madison Southern High staff has identified some students as at risk through that PtGT alone, he said. Students who have behavior issues or miss a lot of school all at once are easy to identify, Gilliam said. But some students don’t make any trouble and don’t get noticed, he said.
“They would just sit in the back of the room and just fail,” he said. “Those kinds of kids you forget about if you don’t have something like the Persistent to Graduation Tool.”
Even students with a great grade history and no behavioral issues may be at risk, Allen said.
“The PtGT may use demographics to help us understand that the student may struggle at home,” she said.
However, Allen said she cautions people to “know your kids before they start making assumptions based on the report. School personnel should never just get this list and begin calling home and warning that a certain student may be at risk for dropping out. This could be offensive, and in many cases, it’s not that these students are at risk for dropping out, but that they need some type of other support.”
“The PtGT is simply a tool to provide good data at the student level to show the likelihood of our students persisting to graduation,” she said. “The true challenge comes when we analyze the root causes and gain an understanding as to why these students are off track to graduate. The challenge continues with using appropriate support and interventions to change their trajectory.”
Scott Howie teaches in a self-contained drop-out prevention program called Focus and Finish at Madison Southern High. He gets his students as academic referrals who need credit recovery to graduate on time.
However, Howie said he looks at the PtGT report to see what factors may have caused his students to fall behind in their credits.
“I use that score on the Persistence to Graduation to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this kid now or we’re probably going to lose this student,” he said. Madison Southern High students are fortunate that school administrators have invested in Focus and Finish and the Career Connections class to take action on the data, Howie said.
“If you have the tool, that’s fine – what are you going to do once you have it? We have it and now we’ve not only put it into use, but we’ve also added additional resources to help meet the needs of the kids that we have,” he said.
While KDE cannot prescribe which interventions schools use, the department can encourage schools to do something with the data, Tomberlin said.
“We’re banking on the evidence-based research that validates the use of an early warning system like the PtGT, so that graduation rates and college/career ready rates may increase,” she said. “This is a resource that can impact our graduation numbers.”
As well as student lives, she added.