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Strategies to Keep Kids in School

States can learn a lesson from a report that studied dropout rates in 16 states. Joseph D. Creech, author of the report and executive director of educational policies at the Southern Regional Education Board, told Education World that reducing dropout rates isn't easy or simple. "There is not a single silver bullet that has the answer," Creech said. "It is complex." Included: Strategies for identifying potential dropouts and keeping them in school!

States that want to reduce dropout rates can learn a lesson from the report, Reducing Dropout Rates. The report, which studied dropout rates in 16 states, offers key strategies that could help keep students in school. Those strategies include creating personal connections between students and staff and giving students extra academic help so they don't lag behind their peers.

Although students drop out of school for many reasons, Southern Regional Education Board(SREB) researchers state that one thing is sure-- the process begins in the early grades. The report explains some of the indicators that students may be at risk of dropping out. (See sidebar.) Understanding those factors is essential for educators who want to develop strategies for keeping students in school, according to the report.

Who Drops Out of School?

Identifying students at risk of dropping out is essential for developing strategies for keeping kids in school. A new report from the Southern Regional Education Board, Reducing Dropout Rates, points out factors that affect students who are most likely to drop out. Those factors include the following:

* Living in poverty or a low-income household

* Not speaking English well and being born outside the United States

* Living in a single-parent household

* Having parents and siblings who have dropped out of school

* Repeating one or more grades

* Experiencing behavioral problems in school

* Being absent from school often.

"If you don't know who is dropping out and why, then how can you develop a strategy?" asked Joseph D. Creech, the SREB executive director of educational policies.

Reducing dropout rates isn't easy or simple, Creech said. "There is not a single silver bullet that has the answer," he told Education World. "It is complex."


What happens at the school-building level is the key to keeping students in school, he said. It is important for each school to develop ways for students to create personal relationships with at least one member of the staff.

Students often say they leave school without a diploma because they don't feel connected to anyone there, Creech said. "It is important to make students feel connected academically, with their peers, and with the people in the school," Creech told Education World. Schools with lower dropout rates often have policies that assign one teacher to a group of students, who continues to advise them until they complete high school.

Creating a sense of belonging is consistent with the other recent research that touts the benefits of small schools. A study of Chicago schools--Small Schools: Great Strides, released by Bank Street College of Education in Chicago-- attributes student attachment as one reason small schools have significantly lower dropout rates.

Creech agrees that small schools offer those kinds of benefits, pointing out that some large schools are successfully creating schools within schools to help promote a more personal environment. "It may be that in some respects, larger schools may be more efficient in offering more programs, but is it efficient and effective at the same time?" Creech asks. "Both things are important."


Feeling connected isn't enough, Creech said. "Most of those who were asked why they dropped out said they couldn't keep up with their peers academically." That reason stresses even further the need for remedial help in the early grades.

By the time students reach 16-- the age when most kids can legally drop out of school-- many have stayed back at least once and often are only in the ninth grade, the grade with the largest number of dropouts, Creech said.

The solution: Get them extra help and get it to them while they are still in elementary school, Creech urged.

Another key reason students drop out is difficulty adjusting to middle school and to high school, according to the report. Schools with lower dropout rates have transition programs to help students take the leap from elementary to middle school and then again from middle school to high school.


The SREB report recommends that each state develop a comprehensive plan to reduce dropout rates. A comprehensive plan would include the following components:

  • A system to identify at-risk students early
  • Alternative programs that lead to a diploma for those who have dropped out
  • A state-level tracking system that follows students' movements among schools and districts to help provide information on who drops out and why
  • A credible, reliable definition of dropout that is consistently used
  • Challenging academic, vocational, and technical programs
  • A system to evaluate the effectiveness of dropout prevention programs.

About 15 percent of students leave high school without earning a GED or traditional high school diploma. About 75 percent earn a traditional degree, and an increasing number complete a GED.

Forty years ago, 26.7 percent of women dropped out of school compared with 10.3 percent in 1998, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The rates for men fell also, from 27.2 percent to 11.8 percent.

There is significant ethnic and racial disparity among those who earn a degree and those who do not. In 1998, the number of African American students who dropped out (13.8 percent) was nearly double that of white students (7.7 percent). Hispanic students' dropout rates are the highest; nearly a third of Hispanic students leave school before earning a degree.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

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Originally published 09/01/2000; updated 12/21/2005