It can’t be business – or in this case, school – as usual when students who had previously dropped out walk back through the doors this fall, thanks to Kentucky’s new increased dropout age.
Getting those 16- and 17-year-olds back to school who legally dropped out at age 16 prior to the law changing July 1 is only half the battle.
“What I’ve done and what I’ve encouraged my colleagues to do, don’t just go out and round these kids up and put them back in the building,” said Mike Ford, director of Pupil Personnel at Boone County Schools and president of the Kentucky Directors of Pupil Personnel association. “I’ve had heart-to-heart conversations with my principals: ‘What are you going to do with these kids? Why did this child drop out of school? And now this young person has to come back, what innovative, instructional educational strategies are we going to utilize to help them get caught up and get back on track, so the child doesn’t turn 18 and drop out on us a second time.’”
PHOTO: Boone County Schools Director of Pupil Personnel Mike Ford leads district staff during a back-to-school training about changes they will have to work with this year, including the new increased dropout age law.
Educators say creativity and innovation must be at the core of whatever options schools come up with to reach these students, as well as those current students at risk for dropping out.
“Children, when they drop out of school, become nontraditional learners and we can’t fit the square peg into the round hole,” said Anthony Thompson, DPP at Russell Independent Schools and a past president of the state DPP group. “You can’t take someone who has become a nontraditional learner and put them back in a traditional setting and have it work, so people are having to do different things.”
He said former students who may now be working full time, or have children or other responsibilities can’t be expected to sit in a classroom all day.
“We can’t close the doors at 3 o’clock anymore,” Thompson said. “We’re going to have to be open later and do different things and give different avenues. And each district is going to have to open their bevy of resources, and it is challenging.”
Alternative education continues to improve and will become even more important to nontraditional learners, he said.
“Online education is going to be more of a reality for more and more of our kids, and it’s not like it was even five years ago,” Thompson said. “These companies have really embraced the technology in such a way that it is not mundane and it’s not going through the motions. These are challenging, artistically creative courses. They engage students.”
Before they drop out
Thompson, whose district had only one former dropout to contend with, said an early focus on potential dropouts is a must.
“We’ve tried to look down the telescope for children who we think might be in danger and get way ahead of them with interventions,” he said. “We’ve got many more students who are trying out a class presented in an online format, much earlier than they were before. ‘Just give this a try and see if it’s a successful model for you.’ And we’re also putting in place much earlier accountability, so we’re not waiting for the quarter to turn and the grade card to go home to learn the child is struggling. We’ve got people assigned to students we feel like have the potential to struggle. We’re giving them weekly accountability and we’re communicating much more effectively with homes.”
He said the district also is getting kids to tune into their futures much earlier.
“If a student comes in as an eighth-grader or a freshman and they have ideas of what they would like to be when they grow up, we’re trying to introduce them to those things much, much, much earlier, so they can get an idea that what they’re doing in their algebra class really does in fact make a difference toward the achievement of their future goals,” Thompson said.
Communication, school culture and attitudes
Finding ways to meet the education needs of nontraditional learners is good, but Boone County’s Ford said schools need to change to make themselves more welcoming to these returning students.
“I tell people, when this kid walks back into your building – and this kid was a thorn in your side and never did anything really bad, argued with teachers, didn’t care about being in school – when this young person walks back into your building, are you going to look them in the face and say, ‘Ugh, you’re back,’ or are you going to look them in the face and say, ‘I’m so happy that you are back in school,’” Ford said. “‘We are going to make so many changes and it’s going to be so great for you and we are going to move you in the right direction.’
“What culture are you going to take, what tone are you going to take with these kids?”
Getting them back in the door in the first place took a lot of communication with both students and their parents. Ford, who has 63 students from the past two years to get back into school this fall, said parents have been very supportive of the new law.
“Parents want the kids back in school. They got frustrated, just like the child, and allowed the student to drop out against their best wishes,” he said. “So I’m not getting pushback, what I am getting, they’re able to put it back on me: ‘Mr. Ford says there’s a new law in place and you have to go to school and you’re going to do what Mr. Ford says because we’re going to follow the law.’ They’re putting it on me, and I’m OK with that.”
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