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The U.S. School Dropout Problem: is there a solution?

May 13, 2016


The first school compulsory attendance law in the United States was enacted in Massachusetts in 1852. Other states soon followed, but it was not until the early 20th century that all states in the union had such a law. In the 19th and early 20th century the enforcement of compulsory school attendance laws by school or government officials was usually quite sketchy, but in those years, the student who dropped out of school had a reasonably good chance of finding a job, since there was high demand for semi-skilled and even unskilled laborers. The nature of the American workplace as it now exists puts the young person without a high school diploma who is seeking a job with an adequate wage in a precarious situation. Even a high school diploma may not be sufficient to put the young person on a good path with opportunity to move up the employment ladder. Additional education may be required, whether it is in a community college, a technical certification program, or a four year college.

Some may believe that the dropout problem is just a fact of life and advise us, either explicitly or tacitly to do our best to improve graduation rates while conceding, publically or privately, that solving the problem is laudable but implausible. This document is based on the premise that the dropout problem is solvable. However, the problem will not be solved by issuing fine sounding but vacuous policies and platitudes, by the enactment of a federal or state law, or by staying within the comfort zone of existing practices. The solution requires educators and policy makers to have the courage and commitment to abandon practices that have proved to be ineffective, and to approach the problem with a fresh creative and pragmatic perspective.

In what follows, we will provide information about the nature and consequences of the dropout problem as basis for explaining how the Widening Advancements for Youth (W-A-Y) Program is making an important contribution in Michigan to solving the drop out crisis in Michigan. No single program can solve the dropout problem in Michigan or any other state. What is needed is to build on the success of those programs that are making significant progress in addressing the dropout problem. W-A-Y is one of those programs.

The School Dropout Problem

In the past few years, there have been numerous reports about progress in reducing the dropout rate in U.S. schools, and indeed some efforts have had encouraging results. One report in Education Week titled, "Nation's Graduation Rate Nears a Milestone", states, "With graduation rates approaching all-time-high territory, there is reason both to be encouraged and to keep a focus on the efforts that have driven progress."1 Another recent report in U.S. News and World Report claims that the progress that has been made in the past several years puts the U.S. on a pace to achieve a 90% graduation rate by 2020; however, the factual basis for that prediction is obscure.2

While progress has been made, it would be unfortunate to assume that solving the dropout problem is just a matter of time. Education Week's Diplomas Count reported that the high school graduation rate for U.S. students in 2013 was 81%.3 Thus, approximately one-fifth of high school students do not graduate with their class. In concrete terms, this means that one million students dropped out of school in 2013.4 While any improvement in the graduation rate is good news, those grim statistics indicate that much more needs to be done.

Focusing on the mean graduation rate for the U.S. as a whole can distort an accurate picture of the situation with regard to the gravity of the dropout problem where it matters most, i.e., at the local level. While the 2013 graduation rate (the last year for which we have good data) for the U.S. as a whole is 81%, the graduation rate for states in 2013 varies considerably; from 89% in Iowa to 60% in Oregon.5 Also the graduation rates of the various school districts within a state can be widely discrepant. Data for school districts in New Mexico for 2012 (a state that publishes graduation rate by district) shows a considerable range with three districts reporting a 98% graduation rate and two districts reporting a 64% rate. The graduation rates for other districts in the state are distributed between those two points.6 This wide disparity of graduation rates among school districts in New Mexico exists in the other states as well. The dropout problem is particularly acute in cities. Sixteen of the nation's 50 largest cities had a 2013 graduation rate lower than 50% in the principal school district serving the city. Those with the lowest graduation rates include Indianapolis (31%), Cleveland (34 %), Detroit (38 %), Milwaukee (41%), Baltimore (41%), Atlanta (44 %), Los Angeles (44 %), Las Vegas (45 %), and Columbus (45 %). Graduation rates for the various sub-groups of students vary greatly. Asian and white students had a graduation rate of 89% and 87% respectively. The graduation rate for Latinos was 75%, for African-Americans 71%, for American Indians 62%, and for students with disabilities 62%. 7

The on-time graduation rate of Michigan students was 77%. This puts Michigan in the lower half of U.S. states with a rank of thirty-three. Michigan's graduation rate is under the U.S. mean for all student sub-groups: American Indian 64% (6% lower than the U.S. mean); Asians 87% (2% lower than the U.S. mean); Whites 82% (5% lower than the U.S. mean); Latinos 67% (8% lower than the U.S. mean); African Americans 61% (10% lower than the U.S. mean. As the above paragraph indicates, there are only two cities (Cleveland and Indianapolis) among the 50 largest U.S. cities that had a lower graduation rate than Detroit.8

Many American policy makers and citizens realize that he magnitude of the number of young people who drop out of school and never achieve a high school diploma is a critical national problem. One of the consequences of dropping out of school is the cost to the national economy. A Seattle Times report put it this way:

Of 40 million Americans between 16 and 24, about 6.7 million are neither in school nor employed. About half are high school dropouts; the others may have a GED. All are underemployed, if they work at all. To taxpayers, each of these so-called "opportunity youths" imposes a lifetime cost of about $235,680 in welfare payments, food stamp, criminal justice and medical care. Multiply that across the full 6.7 million cohort and the hit is nearly incomprehensible: $1.6 trillion.9

The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that the mean salary for young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who work full time was $23, 900. This puts such an individual at only $8, 170 above the U. S. poverty level for a family of two, and only $50 over the poverty level for a family of four.10

There is another less obvious dimension to the dropout problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contends that dropouts comprise a public health problem.

If medical researchers were to discover an elixir that could increase life expectancy, reduce the burden of illness, delay the consequences of aging, decrease risky health behavior, and shrink disparities in health, we would celebrate such a remarkable discovery. Robust epidemiological evidence suggests that education is such an elixir. Yet health professionals have rarely identified improving school graduation rates as a major public health objective, nor have they systematically examined their role in achieving this objective. Seizing the opportunity to do so can improve health and reduce disparities.11

One of the studies cited by the CDC report contends that improvements in educational attainment of young people such as achieving a high school diploma as a basis for acquiring post-graduation education could save more lives than medical advances. Just as there is a cost for bringing the right resources to bear on solving the problem, there is a very high cost to the nation as a result of the high number of students who fail to get a high school diploma, and each year more young people are added to those who have left school in previous years. Moreover, the nation loses the talent and energy that those young people could bring to the good of the nation as a whole. Our young people are not merely economic statistics. The goal of every educator and every contentious policy maker should be to take the steps necessary so that every American young person has a fair chance in achieving a good, productive and satisfying life. Knowing what is known about the consequences of dropping out of high school for the individual and for the nation, it is unconscionable to fail to define the problem as a major national priority with the concomitant commitment of human and fiscal resources to solve the problem.

In a Los Angeles Times article, Cynthia Parsons the editor of Vermont Schoolhouse wrote about "Dropout Darwinism," which refers to the practice of school counselors who focus on "helping the fittest [and] abandoning the rest. 12 It is unfortunately too frequently the case that teachers and administrators, as well as counselors "give up" on students who are at the periphery of the school. There needs to caring educational personnel and effective resources to help students get on track while they are in school, as well as good options for achieving a diploma if they leave school. If those resources do not exist, even the most dedicated counsellor or teacher will be unable to provide the needed services. While schools may be able to abandon the "unfit," society cannot do so. Depending on the response to them, they will be either social liabilities or assists.

A Framework for Understanding the Problem

The first step in solving a problem is understanding the problem. Fortunately, there is ample available good knowledge to help us understand what there is about schools and students that results in them leaving their school without a diploma. Knowledge, rather than opinion and conjecture, provides the most secure foundation for the design of effective programs for students who are at risk of not attaining a diploma.

One of the landmark research studies for understanding the dropout problem was produced by Jordan et. al.13 They found both "push" and "pull" factors that cause the student to leave the school before graduating. Push refers to factors in the school that have a negative impact on the student‘s engagement with the school program and interactions with their teachers lead the student to believe he/she does not belong there. Yet, as they observed, school is only one aspect of the student's world. Conflict between the school requirements and other aspects of the student's life may pull him/her from the school. For some students who are pulled from school by some event or problem in their life, leaving school may occur without any warning signs. For those students who are pushed from school, dropping out of school is generally not an episodic event or irrational decision; rather, it is the result of a cumulative process over a period of time. The student's disengagement or alienation from school is generally conspicuous to those school personnel who care to look. In a 2013, a comprehensive analysis of seven nationally representative surveys of students who dropped out of school was published. Doll et. al.14 examined the specific factors that pushed or pulled students from school. Examples of push factors were: the student missed too many school days; did not feel he/she belonged there; was failing; or could not get along with teachers, etc. Examples of pull factors were: the young person needed to support the family, became pregnant, had to care for a family member, etc.

Solving the drop out problem requires two types of programmatic responses. One is the development of effective school practices and programs to keep students who are disengaging from school in school by addressing the factors that are pushing them out. The Center for Public Education, an organization created by the National School Boards Association, produced a comprehensive review of research that provides the concrete actions school districts can take to reduce dropout rates.15 The report highlights the actions that school districts can take to substantially decrease the dropout rate and enable a higher number of students to graduate with a diploma. This report corroborates the perspective that dropping out of school is in many instances a predictable event, and makes it clear that the intervention needs to be personalized. Drop out students do not share an identity. While some contend that dropping out of school is explained by race, family socioeconomic status, age of students entering ninth grade, gender, the Center for Public Education report provides research that shows variations in school dropout rates even when controlling for those variables. The point is that the school culture and institutional factors that differ from school to school are what make the difference in school dropout rates.

Even if high schools have good practices and programs in place for at risk students, some students will leave the school. This could be as a result of pull factors or because they have reached a point where have come to conclude that leaving school is their only good option. They have passed the "point of no return" with their school. Even schools that have the student's best interest at heart may be unable to make some of the needed accommodations because of logistical or policy constraints. Thus, even with the right things happening in the student's high school program there will continue to be a need for educational agencies to offer opportunities for students, who have left their school, to obtain their high school diploma.

It is quite important to keep in mind that the real task is not simply to enable the student to get a diploma. Lowering standards would result in higher graduation rates, but it would, in effect, "throw in the towel" by enabling the student to get a diploma, but it would not put the student on track to get an education that leads to a productive career and life. Arizona's "Grand Canyon Diploma" is an initiative that is intended to raise graduation rates by lowering graduation standards.16 That approach is better for state statistics than it is for the students it is intended to serve.

Many who are concerned about the quality of American public education have led efforts to raise curriculum standards and improve standardized test scores. Certainly, calling for the highest level of accomplishment that our young people can achieve is a good thing, but raising standards and enforcing accountability through standardized testing is unlikely to produce good results, without effective changes in the teaching and learning environment. Simply setting a higher target for weight reduction does not ensure that the person will make better progress than they did with the lower target. As one examines the "higher standards" movement around the nation, the instances where there is a credible plan for accomplishing this are rare. Students whose connection to the school is precarious are particularly vulnerable to raising standards without the action plan to accomplish this goal. There are no jobs that simply call for people who know how to get good scores on tests; rather, students need to acquire competencies that have value in the workplace and in their life. Ultimately, what the world beyond the schools needs from young people is not merely their ability to be successful test takers; rather, what the world wants is students who bring fresh energy and productive competencies.

There is a saying dating back to an ancient Roman philosophe: Non scholae sed vitae; or We learn not for school but for life. It is not enough to have students leave the school with a diploma in their hand. They need to leave school with realistic hopes, plans, and competencies to build a good future for themselves. As difficult as it sometimes is to develop programs that enable the students who have left school to get a diploma, the real task for educational agencies is to equip them with what they need to succeed, not merely in school, but in life.

Two Precedent Setting Actions in Michigan that Affirm the Importance of High School Graduation

In 1858, the first public high school was opened in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Kalamazoo Central High School was unique in Michigan since it was free to all attending. The Kalamazoo School Board opened Kalamazoo Central as a free school without a vote by the city residents. In 1873, three prominent Kalamazoo citizens filed a lawsuit in protest to the school being tuition free. The suit found its way to the Michigan Supreme Court which upheld the legality of maintaining the school as a tax supported free high school for all Kalamazoo youth. In the decision, Chief Justice Cooley wrote that "education not merely in the rudiments, but in an enlarged sense, was regarded as an important practical advantage to be supplied at their option to rich and poor alike."17 While the decision of the Michigan Supreme Court was only binding in Michigan, the "Kalamazoo Case," as it came to be known, became an impetus for the development of free high schools across the nation. Removing fees from high schools had major impact in expanding the number of young people who could attend high schools and obtain a diploma.

One hundred and thirty-two years later, in 2005, a gift from one or several anonymous philanthropists was responsible for establishing the Kalamazoo Promise. The Promise provides free tuition for any student who graduates from the Kalamazoo school district for any public community college or university in Michigan, as well as, any liberal arts college in the Michigan College Alliance. The Promise has had two consequences that pertain to graduation rates. First, it removed the cost of higher education as an obstacle for prospective Kalamazoo school district students. Students who know that post- secondary education was cost prohibitive have less motivation to get a diploma as a step toward education after high school. Also, the Promise put a spotlight on the Kalamazoo Schools and made the reduction of the dropout rate not only a school district priority but a city priority as well. It mobilized various agencies in the city to join together to provide community support and services and constructive engagements with young people, and support to enable young people to achieve their diploma and to enroll in college.

Both the "Kalamazoo Case" and the Kalamazoo Promise were a consequence of the belief that all young people needed a good high school education. The establishment of the Kalamazoo Promise was impelled by the same perspective that had motivated Chief Justice Cooley, but now, as is warranted by life in the 21st century, the donor(s) asserted the importance of education beyond high school as a necessity for the young person and as an imperative for the wellbeing of the nation. In both instances, policy makers, educators, and citizens throughout the nation looked to Michigan as a leading state in taking action to equip young people with the capabilities they needed. Justice Cooley's admonition that high school education is a "practical advantage" for all young people is even truer now than it was then. The Kalamazoo Case and the Kalamazoo Promise had important positive consequences for secondary schools and provided national leadership. Widening Advancements for Youth is playing an important role in efforts to enable young people who have left school with very limited prospects for their future to change the trajectory of their life and have realist hope for a good future. Successful efforts in Michigan can make a valuable contribution to solving the dropout problem in our nation. Michigan has demonstrated its leadership in the past in providing young people in the state with expanded opportunities to achieve a high school diploma as a basis for moving forward in their lives in a positive way.

Widening Advancements for Youth (W-A-Y) Program

In 2009, a pilot project called Westwood Cyber High School began in the Westwood Community School District. Glen Taylor was the principal of the high school. Beth Baker was the curriculum and school improvement consultant for the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA). The two of them worked together to create a pilot project focused on helping students who had dropped out of school to achieve a high school diploma. The pilot was successful and they decided to leave their district and RESA positions to expand the impact of the work, which was having positive results in Westwood. In 2010, they established the Widening Advancements for Youth (W-A-Y) Program as a non-profit (501c3) company. There are two types of W-A-Y sites; W-A-Y Academies are charter schools and W-A-Y Partner sites are developed on a contractual basis with a school district. . Currently, W-A-Y has six partner schools, five academies, and partnerships with schools in the UK and Brazil.

If a doctor is treating a patient with a medication that is not working he/she has one valuable insight that can guide efforts to cure the patient: The doctor knows what doesn't work. That is quite valuable information in moving forward with the treatment. A doctor who continues to treat a patient with a drug that has been shown to be non-efficacious for that patient would be guilty of malpractice. Too often, the approach to dealing with a students who are on a path headed toward the door entails repeating practices that have not worked, or on trying to get the student to fit into the existing school program as it exists rather than making responsive changes to the factors that are jeopardizing the student's likelihood of graduation.

Baker and Taylor realized solving the dropout problem requires an approach that went beyond "more of the same" or even just modest modifications of existing school practices. The program they created drew upon their knowledge of the research and development activities in this field, and their own first-hand experiences. W-A-Y is a radical departure from the conduct of schooling in the typical high schools. It brings together several key elements that represent best practice in establishing a learning environment which varies in a very significant manner from conventional approaches for working with students who have left school without a diploma.

It has become a cliché to refer to "learner centered" schools. In one sense all schools are learner centered since the function of the school is to help students learn. W-A-Y is learner centered in a more pervasive sense. W-A-Y students work on projects they have selected; thus, they drive their own learning process. The staff members are resources to help them learn what they want and need to learn in order to move toward successful completion of their high school education. Many of the young people who W-A-Y serves have had negative experiences with teachers; thus, it is important that there is a quite different social climate at W-A-Y.

There are five key elements in the W-A-Y program: organizational culture; personalization; project based learning; standards based curriculum; removal of restrictive and artificial barriers with blended learning.

Organizational culture refers to the assumptions, beliefs, and values that govern how people function and interact in an organization. W-A-Y was designed quite deliberately to embody an organizational culture that puts students and staff into an environment that grenades new ways of functioning and relating to one another. In W-A-Y researchers are called researchers since as knowledge workers they will be involved in research to accomplish their learning. Their work consists of doing the research and producing the products that advance their own knowledge and competencies. There are no adults in W-A-Y who are called teachers. Adults serve in one of three roles: team leaders, content experts, and mentors.

Every researcher is has an assigned team leader, a certified teacher, who oversees all aspects of the researcher's education. The team leader is available any time by phone and email. Interactions between researchers and the W-A-Y staff include daily email, posting and responding to discussion boards, instant messaging, and video conferencing. The team leader conducts home visits and maintains a good relationship with the researcher and their parents. Parents have access to their researcher's progress in real time using W-A-Y's customized, standards-based online reporting tool. Team leaders assist with the identification of available local resources to support the researcher's learning such as internships, community projects, and social services. Researchers are also followed closely within the reporting system to ensure that social or academic interventions are timely. Detailed reports from mentors and team leaders are submitted weekly for review by the program directors.

Content experts are highly qualified teachers who are available to researchers to assist them with the academic content of their work. Content experts provide the knowledge of the various disciplines included in the high school curriculum. Content experts develop projects and collaborate with researchers and mentors to co-create new projects and to modify existing projects to improve the project relevance and appropriateness for a particular researcher. They also assess researcher projects using a proficiency rubric to determine if the researcher has met the standards her/his project was intended to achieve.

Another adult key role in W-A-Y is that of mentors. The mentor is a certified teacher who works with researchers and acts as a learning coach. The role of the mentor is to build a positive relationship with the researcher and guide the researcher toward earning a high school diploma and prepare for postsecondary success. A key foundational component of the program is keeping a low mentor to researcher ratio in order to personalize the learning environment. Just using a new term for the adults in the researcher's learning environment would be of no value if it was only a new name for the previous roles.

It is reasonable to ask: Do these new names simply represent putting old wine in new bottles? W-A-Y did not simply create new names for the staff members; rather, W-A-Y created new roles within the context of a social environment that is quite different from the traditional high school. This is quite apparent to anyone who enters a W-A-Y site or who talks to a researcher about their work as a researcher in the W-A-Y Program. Researchers talk about staff in a way which demonstrates that they have internalized the new roles as persons who are there to help them succeed in their own learning agenda. It is essential to employ staff who want to work in an environment that is unlike the traditional high school, and have the capabilities to work in such an environment. Teachers who see themselves as the focal point of the learning environment do not fare well as W-A-Y staff members. While staff members receive training for their roles in W-A-Y, experience has shown that it is critical for persons coming onto the staff to have a disposition that inclines them that aligns with the W-A-Y culture, and promotes job satisfaction as a W-A-Y staff member. W-A-Y is not the right place to work for all teachers, but for many of those who accept the invitation to join the W-A-Y community it is the environment where they can be the type of teacher they have aspired to be.

In essence, the creation of a new organizational culture is both one of the most critical and most difficult aspects of establishing a transformed high school experience.

Personalization is a critical component of the W-A-Y program. Each researcher has multiple levels of personalized support in the W-A-Y model. Researchers enter the program with an individualized induction in which the researcher gets an orientation to W-A-Y and learns to navigate the online learning environment. After the induction, two W-A-Y staff members conduct a follow up home visit to ensure that the researcher can access the learning environment from home. The staff members answer any questions from the researcher or guardian(s), and review the researcher and guardian agreements. Each researcher is provided with a personalized, standards-based learning plan and is paired with a mentor to coach them toward graduation. The staff is invested in the success of each researcher, providing support 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, all year round. This allows researchers to excel at their own pace, developing customized learning plans on topics that truly appeal to them. Researchers in W-A-Y who graduate receive a fully accredited high school diploma.

A standards based curriculum that is based on the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, and Michigan Merit Curriculum High School Graduation Requirements is the basis for the W-A-Y curriculum. W-A-Y staff believe it is important for their researchers to be successful, not by lowering standards, but by providing the support and structures that enable them to meet the same standards as researchers in conventional schools. All W-A-Y researchers demonstrate the same academic competencies at the same level or higher than is required for graduation in a traditional Michigan high school.

Project based learning is the learning methodology for the W-A-Y Program. Forty years of accumulated evidence has shown that the instructional strategies and procedures that make up standards-focused Project Based Learning, which is highly effective in encouraging researcher motivation, promoting deep learning of higher order learning objectives.18 Researchers create their projects based on their interests; or, as mentioned above they can select from a large number of existing projects. Researchers can contribute to the inventory of projects by making improvements in existing projects, and by adding a project they have created to the inventory.

W-A-Y uses a digital learning environment called HERO. It provides researchers and staff with an extensive catalog of cross curricular projects along with tools to collaborate. Researchers can either explore projects aligned to state standards based on their interest, or work with teachers on a specific sequence of projects. Unlike most digital learning curricula, all projects can be modified by the teacher at the local level. Staff best equipped to identify individualized learning needs, have the tools and access to add resources and scaffolds to the projects.

HERO guides learners to projects and resources that best fit their unique interests, goals, and learning styles. Researchers can find projects that put the curriculum standards in a multi-disciplined context with real world applications. Additionally, HERO seamlessly tracks learning through a comprehensive standards based assessment system that provides a transparent system for researchers, teachers and parents to be continuously informed about what learning has been accomplished, and what learning proficiencies still need to be improved.

Researchers work with content experts to create their projects with elements that meet graduation credit standards for the standard(s) their project is intended to achieve. Projects are assessed for mastery of the content standards utilizing a proficiency-based rubric, with a level one representing basic mastery and a level three representing an exemplary proficiency. The proficiency levels are based on Bloom's Taxonomy and the Rigor/ Relevance Framework.19 To earn a level one proficiency on a standard, the researcher must demonstrate definition level knowledge of the standard. To earn a level three proficiency, the researcher must demonstrate that they can apply the standard in cross-curricular and/or real-world situations. If a researcher fails to demonstrate mastery of a standard at a level one, the teacher(s) will collaborate with the researcher throughout the revision process until mastery is achieved. Content experts assess the researcher's project, and content experts participate in inter-rater reliability sessions around assessing work for standards at least once a month. In this way, fidelity and accuracy of standards-based assessment is maintained. This process ensures that consistency is maintained, especially when new staff members come on board. In the WAY Program model, each content standard is assessed independently and targeted feedback is provided to the researcher at the standard level.

Removal of artificial and restrictive barriers with blended learning is a critical element in the effectiveness of W-A-Y. Time and place are often particularly high barriers to a high school diploma for young people. Many of the researchers in W-A-Y could not participate if they had to comply with a set class schedule at a particular place. W-A-Y researchers can work from home, as well as, the W-A-Y learning lab site for their particular academy or Partner site. Researchers are equipped with a computer workstation and Internet connectivity within his or her home. Once they are enrolled in the program, they have access to the W-A-Y online learning environment 24 hours a day, 365 days per year with a community of highly qualified staff to assist them. Additionally, researchers can receive one-on-one instructional support as needed in the W-A-Y learning lab. The requirement for in-site attendance varies from site to site depending on what is best practice for the researchers in each partner or academy site.

Developing effective programs for the researchers who W-A-Y serves requires a multi-faced approach which is responsive to their needs, life situations and goals. While each of the above five elements have value in their own right, none alone would produce the changes that have occurred though W-A-Y. This is an instance where the sum is greater than the total of the parts.

W-A-Y is accredited by AdvancED the largest community of education professionals in the world. AdvancED is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools throughout the United States and internationally. AdvancED was formed in 2006 by the consolidation of the pre-college divisions of two of the U.S. regional accreditation organizations: the Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement of the North Central Association of Colleges and School, and the Council on Accreditation and School Improvement of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. To achieve AdvancED accreditation, educational agencies undergo a rigorous on-site accreditation visit.

What do Researchers and Staff Tell Us About W- A-Y?

In November 2014, questionnaires were sent to 1350 W-A-Y researchers as part of a formative evaluation. Responses were received from 693 researchers, which produced a 51% response. There were several questions on the survey that provide an indication of how W-A-Y researchers feel about their involvement with W-A-Y. All responses were anonymous.

One question asked researchers if W-A-Y had changed their opinion of what they could accomplish. Forty-six percent indicated it had changed their opinion in major positive manner. An additional 21% indicated that W-A-Y had changed their opinion "to some extent." The other 32% indicated that their experience with W-A-Y had not changed their belief about what they could accomplish. The impact of W-A-Y on researchers' opinion of what they could accomplish was evident in their response to another question which asked them specifically if they expected to graduate. The responses were as follows: "absolutely" (81%); "probably" (12%); "maybe (5%); "not likely" (2%). While no data exists with regard to how researchers would have answered this question prior to their involvement with W-A-Y, there can be little doubt that substantially fewer researchers expected to graduate prior to entering W-A-Y. Researchers were also asked to reflect on their future after graduation. Sixty-three percent reported that they were now planning on going to a community college or a four year university. An additional 5% indicated that they were planning to enter a private technical school after graduation, and 22% reported that they did not have any plans for getting more education after graduation from high school.

Two other questions were included that provide a sense of how W-A-Y researchers feel about the W-A-Y program. One of those questions asked if the respondent would recommend W-A-Y to a friend. Sixty-six percent reported that they had already done so. Another 21% indicated that they would, but had not done so yet. Six percent said they did not know if they would do so, and 7% said they would not do so. Finally, the questionnaire asked the researchers to rate W-A-Y on a 5 point scale with 5 as the strongest positive score and 1 as the most negative score. The results of this question are as follows: 5 (34%); 4 (26%); 3 (27%); 2 (8%); and 1 (4%).

A questionnaire was sent to staff at the same time the questionnaires were sent to researchers. It contained several open-ended questions. The responses from staff were anonymous. Staff members were asked to indicate what they liked about working at W-A-Y, and any features of W-A-Y which they considered to be important in the operation of the program. A number of staff members wrote about the positive consequences of personalization, and expressed appreciation for being able to work with W-A-Y researchers as individuals. One staff member wrote that W-A-Y enables staff members to help researchers "identify career possibilities based on their interests and talents, exposing them to professionals in their chosen fields of study and interests, and sharing life experiences that help them make sense of things going on in their world/lives." Another staff member reported that they "get to build a school that puts the needs of the researcher over everything else."

Another theme that emerged in the open-ended staff responses pertained to the relationships between researchers and staff. The W-A-Y program intended to provide a social climate that was quite different from that which exists in the typical school. Some examples of staff comments: "WAY is very flexible. The researchers have many ways to get from point a to point b, not just ‘my way or the highway' type of mentality." "I love how much easier it is to build strong relationships with researchers and better meet their needs as learners." "I get to build a school that puts the needs of the researcher above everything else."

The response to a question that asked staff about what they particularly enjoyed as a W-A-Y staff member: Some responses were: "Being a part of something amazing and cutting edge to help young people who would otherwise fall through the cracks;." "When I get a breakthrough with a researcher [researcher], or have someone graduate that was never successful in other types of programs;" "Working in a learning community that is immersive;" "Access to great teachers for collaboration, and being able to talk to researchers one-on-one in a way that is beneficial for them. (Beneficial for me most of the time too!);" "I love the people I work with and it's a great feeling to be a part of an organization that is really making a difference in young people's lives." W-A-Y staff have been selected based on their ability to be able to work in a non-traditional learning environment. Responses such as those provide evidence that the selection of staff members has been successful.

Conclusions

1. The graduation rate in Michigan should not be buried in the lower half of U.S. states. Michigan educators, policy makers, and citizens should commit to Michigan moving to the upper echelon of the states with regard to graduation rates.

2. A comprehensive effort to improve graduation rates requires both programs to reengage students in their high school, as well as, programs for those students who have left their high school. W-A-Y is focused on helping students who have left their high school to achieve an education that puts them on a good life path.

3. Commitment to the right goal is only the first step. In order for Michigan to make significant progress more than just good verbiage and intention is required. Two critical elements are necessary. The first is the deployment of the human and fiscal resources that the task requires. The second is the capability to get beyond small incremental change to the transformation change that needs to occur. This requires the courage to abandon what does not work, as well as, the imagination and capability to create a vibrant learning environment for the students that the program is intending to serve.

4. Local districts should work with the state and federal government, but schools should do all they can to not make what states or the federal government provide – or do not provide – a "make it or break it" situation.

5. Programs that are having strong positive impact in Michigan such as W-A-Y can be beneficial to other states. Exposure of these programs can stimulate others along the same lines. Such programs give concrete evident that the dropout problem is indeed solvable. School districts or agencies that are committed to making substantial improvement in graduation rates do not need to "start from scratch." They can get a made better progress by learning from programs that are having a significant impact in in the lives of young people. .

Finally, in order to understand the W-A-Y program it is helpful to consider the second letter in the acronym. The "A" stands for advancement not achievement. In the school context achievement is something measured by an achievement test. Certainly, raising test scores of students is not an easy task, but ultimately the goal of schools is one giant step above school achievement. The real task is to design learning environments that promote students making advancements to help them be successful, not only in school, but in life. W-A-Y has accepted and is meeting the challenge of helping young people take a big step forward in advancement to a productive and satisfying life. Non scholae se vitae or "We learn not for school but for life" continues to apply and could well be the W-A-Y motto.

James Bosco, Professor Emeritus
Western Michigan University

Beth Baker, Co-Founder/Executive Director
W-A-Y Widening Advancements for Youth

Glen Taylor, Co-Founder/Executive Director
W-A-Y Widening Advancements for Youth

REFERENCES

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