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School dropout study urges early intervention

Tailor existing programs to needs, report says

A Gonzaga University study focused on dropout prevention starting in middle school suggests an early warning system for identifying potential dropouts, a bigger variety of academic opportunities and more rigor and additional funding for community-based social support programs.

Some of the programs are already in place or in the works but need to grow, while others will take significant resources to establish, according to the report released this month.

“This is a document that adds weight to the efforts of many in the area, so it can take all these nonconvergent efforts and put them together in a comprehensible way,” said Ben Stuckart, director of Communities in Schools and spokesman for the Children’s Investment Fund, which is sponsoring a $5 million annual levy on the November ballot to support Spokane’s children.

A review of several studies showed that failing math and English, behavioral problems and less than 80 percent attendance in the sixth grade are key indicators of students who may drop out, according to the Gonzaga study.

Some of the study’s prevention or intervention suggestions included extended learning opportunities, such as summer and after-school programs; career and technical education opportunities, which give students a chance to do something they are interested in while earning a diploma; and individual instruction or tutoring.

The grant-funded study was prompted by Priority Spokane, a group of civic leaders who determined education is the best way to improve the Lilac City. Gonzaga was selected to conduct the study after the group reviewed several proposals.

The goal of the three-phase research project was to find ways to improve the middle school experience in and out of the classroom in order to reduce Spokane Public Schools’ 29 percent dropout rate.

The issue has become a major concern for educators, community leaders and child advocates throughout the area, but efforts have been somewhat disjointed.

“This is our foundational document,” Stuckart said. “This is what everybody in the area should be following to decrease the dropout rate, whether it’s funding mechanisms or the programs that should be funded or the areas that need focus.”

The study’s first recommendation is one that leaders agree is needed, but it will first take research and money.

Early intervention is critical and highly recommended. “Some of the most credible data cites the importance and targeting of intervention in the sixth grade,” because recent research shows that some problems can begin as early as elementary school, the study states.

“An early warning system is something that really makes a lot of sense. It’s just that we need to have some longitudinal study specific to the school district first,” said Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell. “Then we need to set up a system to track the students, a data management system and the interventions.”

Spokane Public Schools started a program this summer that offers tutoring for math, which is where most students struggle academically, officials said. Jump Start is for soon-to-be seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.

The district also is continuing with a social and academic support program for incoming freshmen at Lewis and Clark and Rogers high schools, which pairs struggling students with mentors who help throughout the year.

“You have to be really careful that whatever the intervention is, it aligns specifically to what the student needs,” Stowell said. “It’s almost individualized. That’s why we need to be really careful about what programs we use.”

Community-school collaboration and outside social support are the final piece for keeping kids in school.

These include mentoring, school-parent communication, making sure kids feel safe in school as well as at home, identifying students who need help, and connecting with outside agencies.

“I think there is a convergence of thinking about seeing where the kids are and putting them with the appropriate service,” Stuckart said.

The study listed the Children’s Investment Fund as one possible source for funding, as well as Communities in Schools, Empire Health Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Inland Northwest Community Foundation, Spokane Public Schools Foundation and United Way of Spokane County.

Many of the programs that the study suggests already exist in the community and in the school district, Stuckart said. “They just need to grow.”

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