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Getting high school dropouts back on the path to graduate from high school, enroll in higher education and enter a promising career requires collaboration among an array of players.
Community colleges must play a big role in these efforts, along with K-12 school systems, policymakers at all levels, private and public funders, youth-serving organizations, and workforce development groups, according to education and job training advocates participating in a briefing this week on dropout recovery.
It’s that kind of coordination that underlies the Back on Track model, said YouthBuild President Dorothy Stoneman, who spoke at a Nov. 2 briefing in Washington, D.C., convened by Jobs for the Future (JFF). Back on Track integrates college-readiness instruction with academic and social supports, provides transition counseling and offers support in the first year of college. It is a collaboration of JFF, YouthBuild USA, the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC), and the Corps Network, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Open Society Foundations.
Since its launch in 2008, Back on Track has been implemented in 29 sites by community-based organizations working with community colleges and other partners. Its approach builds on JFF’s experiences with early-college programs, which allow students to earn college credits while still in high school, and YouthBuild, a program that puts former dropouts to work building affordable housing in their community while they complete high school.
In Ohio, faculty from Columbus State Community College (CSCC) teach courses at a YouthBuild school. The college has also worked out an articulation agreement with the program to provide for a smooth transition, said Mike Snider, former provost of CSCC who now works with the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.
Public two-year colleges in Ohio are “proud of our open door system,” Snider said, "but that’s not good enough. We’re moving the door out into the community.”
“Dropouts are an untapped asset,” he added. “We cannot afford to lose potential productive citizens.”
A needed nudge
Trevor Easley, a graduate of YouthBuild Columbus, credited the program with giving young people the push they need to succeed in school, especially when they don’t have much support at home.
Easley, a self-described class clown who was more interested in entertaining his classmates than studying, said he appreciates the second chance he got through YouthBuild. He now works for the organization and hopes to earn an associate degree at CSCC.
More resources and policies are needed to help schools and communities reach disconnected youths, said keynote speaker Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who noted that without a diploma, young people will face “a lifetime of lower wages and limited opportunities.”
A bill passed in October by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes several provisions aimed at dropout recovery, Hagan said, including her amendment to allow low-income students to enroll in early-college programs at no cost to them.
According to JFF, the first cohort of students in the Back on Track initiative “are graduating from high school, enrolling in postsecondary education and persisting in the first year at two to three times the rate of their peers.”
A similar program with a high success rate is run by NYEC, which provides education, work experiences, support services, career exploration and leadership experiences to high-risk, out-of-school youths. Eight community colleges are involved with local NYEC programs in partnership with community-based organizations.
In Texas, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District has partnered with South Texas College to create the College, Career and Technology Academy, which allows former dropouts to complete their high school diplomas while taking community college courses. The program targets youths up to age 26 who lack five or fewer credits or failed their high school exit exam.
The academy, along with an intensive outreach effort and state policies focused on increasing graduation rates, has helped the 31,000-student school district reduce the number of dropouts from 485 in 2005-06 to 42 in 2010-11, said Superintendent Dan King.
King said he has a simple message to dropouts: “You didn’t finish high school; start college today.”
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