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Increasing graduation rates after COVID means meeting students where they are

An AmeriCorps member instructs two students.

The factors that lead students to discontinue their enrollment in school are complex and unique to every student. This summer, CYC sat down with students who left school early to listen and learn from their experiences. Their insights were invaluable as we as an organization—and, going wider, as the educational sector—begin the work of rebuilding after COVID-19.

Preliminary data from the 2020-2021 school year suggests that the dropout rate in Colorado increased last year, a devastating setback after years of progress.1, 2 In the 2019-2020 school year, nearly 9,000 students dropped out; the same metric for the 2020-2021 school year is expected to increase when official data becomes available this fall.

Need for Personalized Attention

Students are repeatedly reporting that lack of personalized attention available at school is a major deterrent to their success, and this issue has only been exacerbated by the need to hold much of the past school year remotely. With teachers lacking the capacity to provide individualized instruction virtually, the most vulnerable students have suffered.

“That’s the reason why I left school and went to studying for my GED instead,” said London, age 16. “[My parents] knew I wasn’t learning anything with the online schooling because there is not that personal touch between teachers and students. Teachers couldn’t take the time to truly educate people that don’t fully understand the topics or things they are learning… Kids my age might not show it, but a lot of them need personalized interaction. Some kids might be getting good grades, but still need that kind of engagement to really realize why what they are doing is important.” 

“I feel like schools as a whole need to start personalizing things more,” said Alex, age 18. “The only time I got A’s in classes was when the teacher would ask what they could do to help me learn better.”

CYC’s Reengagement program was designed to provide this personalized attention to students who have left school early without a diploma. Each student is paired with a Reengagement Specialist based on their geographic region or other circumstances; together, the student and Specialist craft a tailored education plan to reenroll the student at a school that best fits their needs. Individualized attention does not stop when a student reenrolls; Specialists continue to support students throughout the year through ongoing case management and connection to community resources that meet students’ specific needs.

Kids my age might not show it, but a lot of them need personalized interaction.

London, age 16

The Importance of Affirmation

Another common theme amongst the students we listened to was the lack of affirmation and support they received, both from society at large and from those closest to them. Many of the students involved in CYC programs are facing external difficulties that compound their struggle to prioritize school. Last school year, 35 percent of CYC students (ages 14-21) were involved with the court system; 4 percent were in foster care; and 18 percent experienced homelessness currently or in the past. These circumstances can worsen students’ self-esteem, especially when they have few people in their lives who believe in them.

“I had a lot of people who were really putting me down in my middle school years mostly, basically trying to prepare me to be the bare minimum, as if I could be nothing greater,” said Lucas, age 19. “When I dropped out, in a lot of ways I felt like I had proven those people right about me. I felt ashamed of myself.”

Kyren, age 19, had a similar experience: “I felt like I was a disappointment. I felt like my grandpa was looking down on me, and he saw that I was just lying on the couch not budging towards getting my diploma… It made me feel bad. I felt horrible, like I was a disappointment. And I hated it.”

Research by Attendance Works shows that school attendance and engagement improve when students who are chronically absent are paired with mentors that reinforce them positively, as CYC’s program Corps for a Change does. Students are paired with AmeriCorps members who conduct weekly one-on-one meetings, building positive relationships amidst what is, in some cases, the only source of encouragement a student will receive.

When asked what facilitated her reentry into school, Alex said, “Just stability… Not only stability but also feeling welcome. Just knowing that somebody noticed that you were struggling and cared, that itself is motivation.”

What does a potential solution to these recurring issues look like? While this question of course does not have a singular right answer, the research is clear that raising graduation rates (particularly among marginalized groups) takes a network of resources, both inside and outside of school. CYC’s Reengagement program seeks to bridge that gap and connect students who want to go back to school with the resources and support needed to do so. In the program, students receive individualized supports such as enrollment assistance, personalized education planning, career readiness development, social and emotional support, and much more. Meanwhile, Corps for a Change assists students who are still enrolled but are showing warning signs of dropping out.

Supporting Students to Succeed On Their Own Time

All students have the power to control their own destinies and overcome obstacles to graduation. Programs like CYC’s Reengagement program and Corps for a Change enable them to craft plans for their futures that meet their specific needs—which may look very different now than they did prior to COVID-19. Similarly, supportive adult-student relationships require adults to understand that students must follow their own timelines. Sometimes, it can take a student longer to work through challenges in their personal and academic lives than others may expect.

When students are empowered to have a say in their educational journeys, they can achieve the goals they have outlined for themselves; when they achieve these goals, they develop a vital sense of confidence and accomplishment that will propel them into their futures.

Lucas said it best: “I’ve recently come to the realization that I didn’t drop out because I was dumb and didn’t understand things. I dropped out because of the situation I was forced into. But I am still capable of being the success people said I never could be, and that’s what I want to push myself to be, all the same. It took a while for me to realize that that was still something I could do, that I could be.”  


CYC Administrator

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