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Fighting the High School Dropout Rate

It is estimated between 15 and 30 percent of high school students in the U.S. will not graduate. And among some minority groups, the dropout rate is believed to be much higher. Jeff Swicord looks at one school system that provides special help to struggling students ... long before they get to high school.

"And what does it say here? Not following directions and disruptive? What ?… in language arts with Mrs. Solomon?"

Two fifth graders at an elementary school in Howard County, Maryland, north of Washington D.C., have been struggling in school.

Identifying potential dropouts early -- while they are still in elementary school -- is the key to a program here. Teachers and administrators work with students through their high school years to make sure they have the resources they need to learn and graduate -- and don't disrupt the learning experience for others.

Carol Gallay is the Alternative Education Coordinator at Running Brook Elementary School. Identifying struggling students early is key. "We know that a lot of behavior problems -- at least in elementary school -- are academic-based. When children can't do the work that they are being asked to do, they will get frustrated and act out."

Recently, a major U.S. weekly news magazine ran a cover story titled "Dropout Nation." It cited estimates that up to one in three high school students will fail to graduate.

Howard County's dropout rate is just over 1 percent. Craig Cummings is Coordinator for Alternative Education Programs for Howard County. He attributes part of the success to aggressive and early intervention to help kids.

"The longer that academic and behavioral problems fester and go unaddressed, the more difficult it is to change those things around and have some positive outcomes."

Cummings says there are many reasons students decide to quit school.

All the educators we talked with agreed the biggest factor was a lack of connectedness … schools and teachers failing to build relationships with kids so they feel they belong.

Razia Kosi, a school mental health therapist, says this sense of belonging can improve the success rate. "If you look at actual brain research that is coming out, the relationship piece, the emotional piece of kids feeling connected to school is very high on the list of them being able to learn and ready to learn. It is not just a fluff thing. Biologically there is something going on in the brain that helps people feel connected and they need to be able to do that."

Homewood High School takes the most at-risk students in Howard County. It uses smaller class sizes, more individual attention and behavioral counseling.

It also offers an afterschool program, where teachers are committed to building relationships with students.

Kosi adds, "You are getting into multi-generational levels of dysfunction in the family. Coming into Homewood you are seeing parents who have dropped out. So they didn't have the academic ability to help their kids move on."

Teen pregnancy also contributes to the dropout rate nationwide.

Gerry Maxwell-Jones is a facilitator for a special program for teen mothers and fathers, so they can stay in school. She works with 11 students who attend classes at a traditional high school.

They receive free transportation, day care, and other support services.

Maxwell-Jones is ensuring everyone has an opportunity to succeed. "They would drop out because it is real hard. It is easy to mesh into the school population. And often times these students drop through the cracks. Because there is no one there to advocate for them there is no one to encourage them."

Not all school systems across the U.S. have the resources of Howard County. The personal attention and services these kids receive are expensive. But Carol Gallay says, in the end, it pays off. "So, if they stay with an alternative ed [education] program all the way through, probably 90 percent of them are successful and will graduate."