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IN AND OUT: Study Examines What Happens to High School Dropouts Who Reenroll

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“We need to make sure that ninth and tenth graders who fall off track make up those course credits quickly before they forever lose the chance to catch up.”

Though 35 percent of students in an urban California district’s Class of 2005 dropped out of school at least once over a five-year period, almost a third of the dropouts reenrolled, finds a new study by education research organization WestEd. However, over half of all reenrollees returned to school for just one year, and fewer than 20 percent ultimately earned a diploma.

The report, Reenrollment of High School Dropouts in a Large, Urban School District, examines the roughly four thousand students who enrolled as first-time freshmen in the San Bernardino City Unified School District during the 2001–02 school year, with a particular focus on those who left school and then returned. It found that four years later only 45 percent of the first-time freshmen in the Class of 2005 had been continuously enrolled and had graduated with a regular high school diploma; the report calls them “standard graduates.” (The 20 percent of students who were neither counted as dropouts nor graduates were considered “others”; included in this category were out-of-district transfers, students who were expelled, and those who earned alternative high school completion certificates.)

According to the report, more dropouts left in their first year of high school than any other year.  However, the majority of these dropouts—60 percent—reenrolled in a San Bernardino high school at least once. The six reenrollees interviewed cited academic struggles, the need for additional help to master grade-level content, boredom, and “limited ways to make up failed courses and credits” as factors that led them to drop out.  In addition, “life stresses” such as demanding jobs, parenting responsibilities, and violence in their communities overwhelmingly took a toll on the reenrollees. “Without exception, reenrollees reported mental health issues that impeded their ability to attend school regularly—anxiety, depression, and a ‘sense of hopelessness that can take you nowhere far,’” the report reads.

Ninth-grade and black dropouts were the most likely to reenroll, the report finds, while. conversely, male and English language learner students were especially likely to drop out and not reenroll. Almost half of all ninth-grade dropouts eventually returned to school, a percentage that dropped sharply with each successive grade. Researchers speculated that one reason for the decrease was that dropouts who returned to school at seventeen or eighteen were often sent to the district’s adult education school rather than the district’s standard high schools.

Reenrollment of High School Dropouts also details the results of interviews between researchers and San Bernardino district administrators and high school principals on their concerns related to reenrollment. They felt that reenrolling dropouts was “unquestionably the right thing to do, so we do it,” but admitted to feeling that there were disincentives to readmitting students. Key among these disincentives were the reduction in the state funding the district receives, as the money is connected to enrollment and attendance (and reenrollees tend to have poor attendance rates); the adverse effects on meeting accountability requirements (for example, because dropping out is counted as an event, a student who drops out and reenrolls more than once raises the dropout rate); and limited funding and staffing capacity to offer targeted credit recovery interventions.

“We need to make sure that ninth and tenth graders who fall off track make up those course credits quickly before they forever lose the chance to catch up,” said BethAnn Berliner, lead author of WestEd’s study. “We also need options for older reenrollees who may need to balance job and family responsibilities as they try to make up the missing diploma requirements.”

To read the full report, which also details policy and practice recommendations made by San Bernardino district staff and students, go to http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/west/pdf/REL_2008056.pdf.

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