John Traynor, Assistant Professor of Education, confers with a seventh grader at Shaw Middle School

The Science of Preventing High School Dropouts: Start Early

A year ago, assistant professor of education John Traynor led a small group of colleagues in a national search for evidence-based ways to stem the flow of Spokane high school dropouts, then at 39 percent.

The project is part of Priority Spokane, a community initiative. Working with a $44,000 grant from the Inland Northwest Community Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Traynor found that successful dropout prevention projects share certain approaches. “It was interesting to see common ‘off-track’ factors.” Failing in math, failing in English. Trouble with attendance and behavior. In sixth graders, these were often warning flags, or off-track factors, that predict future dropouts. However, students in each community show a different pattern. Key would be learning Spokane’s pattern of pre-dropout factors.

Traynor and colleagues Jonas Cox and Katie Kaiser recommended three approaches to keeping middle school students on track for high school graduation. First, create a dropout early-warning system that would track students starting in sixth grade. The system would seek out the specific factors that predate Spokane students’ decision to drop out. Second, develop high academic expectations and achievement – not simply in the classroom but in after-school and summer programs, too. Third, create social support so that students and families are embraced in a network of mentoring and education.

“There are so many factors in a kid’s life, academic, social, economic, family – it’s surprisingly hard to pin down what works,” Traynor said. An interesting phenomenon in Spokane is that “they’re keeping their students until the senior year even though these kids know they’re not going to make it to graduation. That says something positive right there about Spokane Public Schools.”

Today, the dropout early-warning system is a major step closer to operating. A second study, being done this spring and summer, is tracking dropouts from 2008 and 2010 to identify factors that led to their leaving school. This will create the initial data bank for the early-warning system. Educators will keep adding to the data bank, giving them a powerful tool to discern which interventions keep Spokane students on track for graduation. Traynor says it’s deeply encouraging to him that community partners Empire Health, United Way and the Inland Northwest Community Foundation gave an additional $45,000 for that phase of the work.

Traynor’s work leads directly to Gonzaga’s mentoring programs, particularly at the middle school level. If the school district shares data from the early-warning system, then those who lead after-school mentoring and enrichment programs will benefit. They can learn from the data whether their efforts are paying off and get a clear sense of how to improve their programming.

“It’s exciting to have the school district agree that out-of-school time matters,” Kaiser said. “What I hope we can do is to create a method by which other agencies can evaluate themselves. We want to build a system of conversation, tracking from the schoolhouse to teachers, to other agencies. I think we can use this information to build a template so that we can evaluate success for Gonzaga’s mentoring programs and other after-school and summer programs.”

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