Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

June 17th, 2014

Youth Ambassadors Improve School Attendance

It’s no secret that the adults in young people’s lives are hugely important in shaping their behavior, their attitude, and their beliefs about their futures. But often overlooked is the capacity of youth themselves to impact their school community and to positively influence their peers and serve as role models to other students, especially when given the right support and resources.

It is this capacity that forms the foundation of the Youth Ambassadors program in Seattle, Washington. Led by Lori Markowitz, the founder and now Executive Director for Youth Ambassadors, the program began in October 2007 as part of the Seeds of Compassion multi-day event honoring the Dalai Lama’s visit to Seattle. Forty local youth, representing diverse backgrounds from around the city, were chosen as Youth Ambassadors for the event and were so inspired by their time together and the values the event espoused that with Lori’s help, they formed an organization dedicated to serving the community.

Although initially the charge of the youth-led group was fairly open-ended, their focus became more sharply defined in 2009, when they received a call from the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Recognizing that the Youth Ambassadors were an asset that could make a significant impact in their effort to address truancy, the Prosecutor’s Office asked for the students’ help assisting in their truancy workshops. After learning more about the issues of truancy and attendance, the Youth Ambassadors decided to take it on as a cause and in 2010, formed a formal partnership with Seattle Public Schools, offering to serve as peer counselors to truant students and mentoring them in the development and implementation of truancy reduction plans.

Since the formal partnership began in 2010, the Youth Ambassadors’ work improving school attendance in Seattle has continued to evolve. Initially their efforts centered on facilitating workshops for truant students and acting as one-on-one peer counselors and mentors. Eventually, with the approval of the Washington State Department of Education, the ambassadors established Peer Truancy Review Boards in four Seattle high schools.

In 2012, the program went one step further in terms of changing the culture around attendance in schools for the better. At Cleveland High, Youth Ambassadors has created a yearlong, for-credit class that meets during the school day and teaches upperclassmen to develop the skills to become mentors to freshmen who are struggling with attendance and risk falling off track and dropping out. The participants in the class have a unique capacity to positively impact their mentees not simply because they are also students at Cleveland but because, as Markowitz points out, the mentors “have recently been through a lot of these issues themselves.”

The curriculum for the course at Cleveland High is made up of three components, the first of which is civics. “In order to change the system, you first have to understand how it works,” explains Markowitz. Students receive training from leaders in the systems that touch them, such as the Chief Justice for Juvenile Justice, and learn to be able to answer questions like: what is the school board? Who are principals accountable to? And, how are district policies set? The second component of the curriculum is around mentoring. The third is around compassion and social/emotional learning. “We’re building a positive climate in the school, which… we’ve realized is an unintentional positive outcome of doing this work,” says Markowitz. Ultimately, the juniors and seniors are prepared to provide structured information and support to their freshmen mentees that increases their sense of connection to the school and in the end, improves their attendance.

And there is evidence that this is exactly what is happening. Graduate students from the University of Washington identified a 60% reduction in truancy amongst Youth Ambassadors Mentees when comparing attendance rates before and after mentor matching. And while not all of its success can be attributed directly to Youth Ambassadors, Cleveland High School has seen remarkable progress since the mentoring elective was first created there. Four years ago, Cleveland’s graduation rate was a mere 60%. By 2013, the graduation rate rose to 69%. Last year, for the first time ever, Cleveland had to turn parents away who wanted to enroll their children there. This year, Cleveland was recognized as a school of distinction.

Now, Youth Ambassadors is expanding and introducing its mentoring program at two elementary schools and a middle school. For these new sites, it is targeting its focus on American Indian and Alaskan Native students, who face disproportionately high rates of absenteeism. While the curriculum will be adapted to be appropriate to younger students—in elementary school, the fifth graders will be responsible for providing mentorship and support to younger students—the mentoring program and coursework will still be grounded in compassion. As Markowitz points out, it is compassion that is a key element for getting to the root cause of what is bringing students to miss school.

The goal of the Youth Ambassadors project may be to reduce the number of truants and chronic absentees in Seattle public schools, but its benefits are more far reaching. The project is empowering youth mentors to play an active role in shaping the culture of their school communities and to positively impact the futures of their peers. It is helping them build their leadership skills and confidence in their own capabilities. “When someone younger than you sees you as a leader, it makes you a leader.”

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June 9th, 2014

Balfanz: Stop Holding Us Back

This month, more than three million high school students will receive their diplomas. At more than 80 percent, America’s graduation rate is at a record high. More kids are going to college, too. But one-third of the nation’s African-American and Latino young men will not graduate.

In an era when there is virtually no legal work for dropouts, these young men face a bleak future. It is not news that the students who don’t make it out of high school largely come from our poorest neighborhoods, but the degree to which they are hyper-concentrated in a small set of schools is alarming. In fact, according to new research I conducted with my colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, half of the African-American boys who veer off the path to high school graduation do so in just 660 of more than 12,600 regular and vocational high schools.

These 660 schools are typically big high schools that teach only poor kids of color. They are concentrated in 15 states. Many are in major cities, but others are in smaller, decaying industrial cities or in the South, especially in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

This seemingly intractable problem is a national tragedy, but there is a solution. In the high schools where most of the young men are derailed, the number of ninth-grade boys who desperately need better schooling and extra support is typically between 50 and 100. Keeping many or even most of those boys on track in each entering ninth-grade class in 660 schools does not seem impossible.

If we know where to focus our efforts, we can put strategies in place that have shown promise, particularly over the last few years. While early childhood is critical, the most treacherous time for young African-American and Latino men is from ages 11 to 21. At the very moment they are the most developmentally vulnerable, the response from schools, foster care, the health system and child protective services gets weaker, while the response from the justice system is harsher. Their family responsibilities grow, and their neighborhoods turn meaner. Their middle and high school experience becomes make or break.

But the secondary schools these students attend are not specifically designed for them. It is not unusual for up to half the students to miss a month or more of school, and often more students are suspended in a year than graduate. In a 22-school sample that we studied closely, nearly all ninth-grade students were either too old for their grades, had repeated ninth grade, needed special education, were chronically absent or had academic skills at the seventh grade level or below. The norm in this environment is to fail classes and then repeat ninth grade. But most students do no better the second time around. Either they drop out then or they may briefly transfer to another school before dropping out later. This is a highly predictable, almost mechanical course, which is why we call those schools dropout factories.

We have also learned that most students who eventually drop out can be identified as early as the sixth grade by their attendance, behavior and course performance, according to studies by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins, where I am the director, and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Using those indicators, it is possible to identify by the middle of ninth grade virtually everyone who will drop out. These young men are waving their hands early and often to say they need help, but our educational and student-support systems aren’t organized to recognize and respond to their distress signals.

In 2008, my colleagues and I decided to focus on those struggling sixth and ninth graders. What if we reorganized entire schools with teams of teachers who shared a common group of students? What if we added more time for English and math and offered coaching for teachers and principals? What if we welcomed students to school, called them if they didn’t show up and helped with homework? What if we used an early warning system that identified struggling students based on their poor attendance, behavior and course performance and then worked to get each student back on track?

To try to provide all that, we developed Diplomas Now, a partnership of three national nonprofits, which works with more than 30,000 students in 40 of the toughest middle and high schools in 14 big cities. (Although I am focusing here on boys, because they have lower graduation rates than girls, the program is coed.)

To evaluate our progress, MDRC, a social policy research organization, is conducting a randomized field trial. Initial indications are positive. In the 2012-13 school year, the program achieved a 41 percent reduction in chronically absent students, a 70 percent reduction in suspended students, a 69 percent reduction in students failing English and a 52 percent reduction in students failing math.

This is not an anomalous result. A recent study of public schools in Chicago shows that getting students back on track in the ninth grade leads to higher graduation rates and that African-American males in particular experience the greatest benefits when schools are reorganized to focus on ninth grade.

What do we need to do on a national scale? First, high-poverty secondary schools need to be redesigned with the special problems of their students in mind, with a focus on freshman year. In practice, this means starting new schools and transforming existing ones.

Second, early warning systems need to be instituted so that teachers and other committed adults can step in at the first sign a student is in trouble, whether it’s cutting class, mouthing off or floundering in English or math.

Third, we should employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging and nurturing to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in sixth and ninth grades.

We also need the larger community, including local businesses and faith-based organizations, to mentor students by showing them how to set goals, apply to college and acquire workplace skills.

This sounds expensive, but it does not have to be, particularly if we stop wasting money on failed strategies like holding kids back in high school. Asking struggling students to repeat a grade under the same circumstances almost guarantees the same result.

We are already paying a lot for failure. On average, holding a student back costs $11,000. The 660 high schools that produce half of African-American male dropouts spend more than $500 million a year to retain more than 46,000 boys and girls in ninth grade.

There is an unexpected path forward, the outlines of which are in view. We can provide our most vulnerable children with a better chance for adult success. They deserve no less.

Robert Balfanz is a research professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and the director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

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June 4th, 2014

New Study: The Importance of Teacher Attendance

While Attendance Works has typically focused on student absenteeism, a new study released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) reveals poor teacher attendance can also be a significant challenge. It sheds light on how often teachers are missing school and why.

Although this study was not able to examine whether poor teacher attendance led to higher levels of chronic absence among students, it does points out prior research showing that teacher absenteeism can affect student achievement when teachers miss as few as 10 days a year.

Roll Call: The Importance of Teacher Attendance also calls for developing policies and practices that will reduce absences among the instructional staff. And it suggests creating a school climate where attendance is valued by students and teachers, alike. The report states:

“Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality, we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make educational progress. We owe it to our children to have the most effective policies and practices to make sure that teachers are present when the roll is called.”

NTCQ researchers analyzed absenteeism data for 234,000 teachers in 40 metropolitan school districts in the 2012-13 school year. The study didn’t count long-term absences for maternity leave or serious illness. But it did count days missed to professional development, reasoning that administrators should evaluate whether career training should be offered while school is in session.

Among the findings:

  • The teachers in the 40 districts had an average attendance rate of 94 percent and missed an average of 11 days a year. On average, school districts allow teachers to take 13 absences annually.
  • 16 percent of teachers had excellent attendance, missing three days or fewer. The same percentage were chronically absent, missing 18 or more days.
  • The days missed by chronically absent teachers accounted for a third of all absences recorded.
  • The districts collectively spent $424 million on substitute teachers or an average of $1,800 for each teacher.

Unlike past research, the report found no correlation between teacher absenteeism and the poverty level at the school.

The report also looks at various strategies that school districts use to promote teacher attendance, such as paying teachers for unused leave, rewarding them with extra time off, restricting leave on specific dates and considering attendance as a metric in teacher evaluations. None of these common incentives were found to have significant impact on attendance rates. The researchers recommend that union and district leaders explore more effective ways to support and improve school attendance:

Investing in a system that keeps effective teachers in the classroom should be a priority for school leaders and policymakers. A key part of that effort is creating a school climate in which consistent teacher attendance is the norm. That said, teachers have demanding, stressful jobs that often include long hours outside the normal school day. Their job requires that they always be “on” regardless of how well they feel. For attendance policies to be effective, they must be flexible for a job that is unique in many ways.



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