Student standing in a stairwell

The Road to High School Dropout Starts in Middle School

Monday, November 7, 2016

In the Bronx, a 6th grade girl named Omarina finds her life falling apart. She and her mother are evicted from their apartment. Omarina and her father, who left the family when she was young, are about to be reunited when he dies of a stroke. As her mother is frequently gone and they have no place to live, she's being shuffled around to various relatives. It's no surprise, that amidst all this emotional turmoil and instability, her grades and attendance at school begin to suffer.

You may recognize this scenario. After watching Frontline's, 'The Education of Omarina', we couldn't help thinking about the implications of her story, and what a big issue this really is. So many children in schools around the country have homes that are falling apart. And their educators never know. Kids spend the majority of their day in the classroom, and don't have an adult in the building who really understands their situation. Not that it's really a teacher's fault -- with classes full of students and a slew of daily responsibilities, most teachers simply don't have the time. Meanwhile, students may find it nearly impossible to get to school, and/or lose interest. The end result? Many students just drop out.

The Middle School Dilemma

Omarina was a middle school student when all of this was happening in her life. And while, nationwide, high school dropout rates may be alarming the problems don't just crop up out of nowhere. In 'The Education of Omarina',  Robert Belfanz (Follow him on Twitter), a research professor at John's Hopkins School of education, notes that this problem really starts in middle school. He found that if a 6th grade student in a high poverty school is absent more than 20% of the time, or fails in Math or English, or receives unsatisfactory behavioral grades, there is a 75% chance they will drop out of high school. Unless, that is, an intervention takes place.

Thankfully, in the case of Omarina, her school had a system where it would review student grades, attendance, etc., and flag students that were struggling. Staff then put this data into action by holding an intervention with those flagged students. It became evident that Omarina was struggling, and an intervention was held between her and some of her teachers. She received personal support, and was able to explain why her attendance and grades were suffering. The personal attention she received, and her own drive to push herself ahead, led her to success. She became an independent learner, but she also had people who were backing her, rooting for her. That's something she wasn't getting at home.

But what about the other students, whose story doesn't end so happily? Not every student is like Omarina. Not every student gets that kind of attention, and when they do, not all respond. Because, there's another side to Omarina's story. Omarina had a twin brother, Omarlin. By the end of his 8th grade year, he got involved 'on the streets' as Omarina put in the documentary. At age 16 he was still in the 9th grade. And when this was being filmed, he had only attended school 5 times that year; later only to be arrested for carrying a knife and possession of marijuana. Shortly thereafter, Omarina found out that her brother had a baby. And the saddest part of his story is that he was later arrested for attempted robbery. Was he just a bad kid? No. He was doing this, he said "for his daughter." He lacked direction.

When did things really start going downhill for him? In middle school, around the same time Omarina was receiving supports from her teachers. Did Omarlin not get that same support? Or did he not respond to it? Did they go to different schools? The film didn't say. And, of course, not all hope for him is lost. But things things certainly could have been easier for him. These two stories really got us thinking about how crucial it is to help middle schoolers to develop good habits, to help them where we can, academically or otherwise, so they can carry these good habits on into high school.

Intervention Time -- Every Day?

It's not just about kids in poor inner-city schools, although that's where this problem seems to be at its worst. And it's not just about academics. What about high performing students who are struggling emotionally? A variety of things happening in a child's home life could affect how they perform in school, and if they even show up for school at all. In Omarina's school the staff met every week to identify struggling students, and then held an intervention. This is an excellent idea. But what if we could do even better?

We work with schools that have implemented a daily, flexible block of time into their school day. Every day, for around 30-45 minutes, teachers meet with students to give them the help they need. As in Omarina's school, they may need to have a time set aside to identify especially struggling students, and then identify the specific areas in which that student needs help. But instead of a few occasional sessions of intervention, what if this occurred every single day?

For the schools that have made it work, they use this flex time for a variety of purposes. Some do use it for an intervention, helping students struggling with emotional issues or problems at home. But not every student needs an intervention. Some need basic academic help in a couple of their classes. Some may want to go above and beyond what they're learning, and use it for an extension of class time. Others may use this for enrichment opportunities. If students can be more engaged in school, be caught up with their work, and have enriching experiences in middle school, their attitude towards high school, and school in general, is much improved.

Omarina received personal attention. One of her teachers really proved to be a mentor and friend to her. In reality, could this happen with every student? It's not that every kid will end up going to a prep school and getting into a prestigious college like Omarina did; but can we help them be successful in whatever they want to achieve? Can every student have at least one adult in the building that they can share with, connect to, who can help them find a path in life? It's possible. It's certainly a goal.

Independence and the Personalized Learning Piece

In addition, students, like Omarina, need to learn how to learn on their own. How can this be done? According to an article published in THE Journal, a survey conducted of 4,000 middle schoolers concluded that personalized learning positively impacted them as independent learners. About 70% of the surveyed students said that they improved in this area. Different approaches to learning and finding multiple ways to solve problems gave students confidence about their learning abilities. New Classrooms CEO Joel Rose said of students in connection to this report, "They also report valuing the relationships they have with their teachers. Understanding the student perspective helps us create personalized experiences that will better support learning." What's the point? The learning experiences middle schoolers have, and the connections they make with their teaches, have a tremendous impact on the outcome of their learning.

Again, by means of a flex block students can take charge of their learning, and make their own choices. This is a skill that will benefit them into high school and beyond. When students themselves can identify their own weak points, and know where to go for help, they are taking charge, taking responsibility for their own future. This extra bit of time in the school day can help them to do this, help them to go above and beyond, and pursue things that interest them. These personalized learning opportunities build confidence in a student, even a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader, that they can accomplish great things if they want to.

Middle schoolers are at a place that sets the trajectory for the rest of their life. It's not a hard and fast rule, but many middle schoolers who miss school and perform poorly continue to do so in high school, to the point where they may stop attending school altogether. Intervening at a time when they most need help could be a crucial component to stopping this downward slide for the majority of kids. Giving them the tools they need to be independent learners will teach them they can, in the long run, stand on their own two feet. And providing that opportunity for personalized learning and support every day might just be what kids need.

To learn more about flexible learning time and it's positive impact on students, watch our video 'Why Create a Flex Block?' here.