Friends: The Hidden Dropout Prevention Heroes

What if one of the most effective tools in reducing dropouts is sitting right next to the student who needs help the most?


In a recent article from the BBC (January 17, 2017), Judith Burns cited an Arizona State University research study which concluded that “positive parental and friendship group influences are key to cutting drop-out rates.”

In concert with research we’ve known for some time, the Arizona State study concluded that “students’ academic achievement was directly related to the level of parental involvement more than any factors”.

Parental involvement remains the greatest predictor, but in this study, another factor was revealed. In their interviews with over 125 students in a school with a high drop out rate,  the study showed that parental influence began to wane if students had too much contact with other disaffected students. 

Let that sink in.  Perhaps you can say it like this:  if students who are likely to drop out spend an inordinate time around other students who are likely to drop out, even the positive influence of parental involvement might not be enough to keep them on pace to the graduation stage.

Did you just slink in your chair a little bit?  Because, you know that with great intentions we will pull a group of struggling kids… together… to help them with academic deficiencies.  We often think that this is a great plan, and for some it may be exactly the right plan.  But, if you aren’t graduating everybody, maybe this research is something you should consider.

Please don’t stop there and think I’m suggesting that we quit our efforts at remediation.  Far from it.  Instead of that, perhaps we need to consider how we group our students during the school day.  Are there times we can being students together and not only avoid negative influences but flip the field and provide an environment with higher expectations and a positive influence to succeed in school and graduate?


Norms are powerful.  They become the culture of an organization, a classroom, a school, even a community. It’s why it’s so important that we not give all of our attention to negative behaviors, but also to focus on the positive, productive behaviors.  We can influence the choices of others by keeping the focus on the behaviors that lead to the most successful outcomes.

So, let’s engage this amazing resource in our schools.  How can we do so?  By working on the climate and the culture, by being specific and explicit about success in school. By developing peer mentoring programs.  By just asking our students to join us in the effort to help everyone graduate.

Whenever we brought all of our students together as a class, we talked about what they needed to do as individuals, but we also talked about how important it was that they look out for each other.

From the very first time we had a class meet at our high school while eighth-graders, we asked them to sit together in the front of the auditorium, not skipping a single space.  From that first meeting, we shared with them that this is what they would do at graduation— sit together, side-by-side, not skipping a seat.  Every time they were asked to meet in the auditorium, it was the same.  After a couple of times, we didn’t even need to remind them; they knew the expectations.

We wanted our students to see themselves as responsible for themselves, but also responsible to the group as a whole.

We set a record for graduating students each and every year.

The involvement of parents is critical in student success; the influence of friends is the perfect complement to help our students succeed and graduate.





Who Are The Difference-Makers in Dropout Prevention?

Who are the difference-makers?

Someone has made a difference.  There’s a lot to celebrate in the realm of dropout prevention.  The graduating class of students in the US in 2016 reached a new record, with a graduation rate of 83.2%, continuing an upward trend of over four percentage points since 2010.

While there will be no shortage of explanations as to why the graduation rate increased, one thing will be certain:  it could eventually be traced back to people who did the right things to help students believe and achieve.

What is the difference between a student who drops out and one who graduates on-time with her class?  Typically, it’s a set of identifiers that are either advantages or risk factors.  But what turns risk factors around, neutralizing their impact and stopping dropout?

We know that there are fifteen effective strategies to reduce dropouts (National Dropout Prevention Center, NDPC); at the heart of each of those strategies is a person who is there when needed, says the right things, does the right things, and doesn’t give up.


If we are graduating more students and reducing dropouts, it’s because:

  • a fourth-grade teacher has kept working with a struggling reader;
  • a single-mom has come home and checked her son’s homework after finishing her work day;
  • the positive influence of other families in the community have made it the norm that everyone graduates, so dropping out isn’t the option it once was;
  • a coach has taught the values of hard-work, perseverance, and respect;
  • a same-age peer has bravely come by and woken a friend up, talked them into coming to school, given them a ride;
  • an assistant principal has worked with a student who has always struggled to make the right choices;
  • the principal has made building relationships a priority and created time in the schedule for positive relationships to develop;
  • fewer students gave up; fewer people gave up on students;
  • someone gave just a little bit more time, a little bit more help, a little bit more encouragement.

Who are the difference-makers?  While they may go nameless, it’s their actions that have led to fewer dropouts, more graduates, and more opportunities for more people.

Who are the difference-makers?  Most likely,  you, and others like you who were willing to give just a little bit more.

Who are the difference-makers?   To help every child be a graduate, every one of us need to be a difference-maker.  All it takes is a little bit more.





Fifteen Effective Strategies for Dropout Prevention

In yesterday’s blog, we talked about 21  factors that might predict which students are most at-risk of dropping out.  Today, the antidote:  fifteen effective strategies for dropout prevention, based on the research of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC).

Just as any of our students can be at-risk of not graduating, anyone in our school and community can be a part of providing the needed support to help a student or students overcome the risk and earn their diploma.

Here’s the catch:  unless we are intentional in organizing the efforts to reduce dropping out, we are very likely to have gaps in our service.  Good intentions alone don’t provide the support needed to prevent dropouts, but a well-organized effort using strategies aligned with research?  That’s a winning combination.

The NDPC offers a Diploma Planning Institute to support the work of teams to design plans that address the risk factors of their students with the fifteen effective strategies.  Effective planning helps us move from random acts of dropout prevention to a strategic effort aligning resources to help students stay on track towards graduation.

To do so, we should use what we’ve learned from research.  A quick warning about the fifteen strategies;  they aren’t to be used like the dollar menu at McDonald’s.  They are most effectively used when done so with fidelity to the research.  That research tells us that the foundational strategies— systemic approach, school-community collaboration, and safe learning environment— are the basis for all the other strategies.

What does that mean?  In short, it doesn’t do you much good to have an awesome mentoring program in a school with a less-than-safe learning environment.  If you have an incredible after-school program but the other pieces of your school (systemic approach) don’t work to help students successful, you aren’t really getting anywhere.  And a service-learning program in a place where school and community don’t work together? The doesn’t work either.

What does work is a strategic use of the fifteen strategies to meet the risk factors of your students.  You can learn more about both at .  Also, you can see descriptions of each of the strategies below.

We can reduce dropout and increase the number of students graduating, but it will take time to talk together about our students, determine their needs, and design our school in a way that will meet their needs.





So, Exactly Who is “At-Risk”?

We often talk in education about “at-risk” youth, and the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) recently concluded its annual At-Risk Youth Forum.  So, exactly who is “at-risk”?

For practical purposes, all students, to a degree, are at-risk to drop out of school and not graduate on time with their class right up to the point where they receive their diploma.

The truth is, the complexities of growing up, the many potential distractions of childhood and adolescence, and the web of influences on young people make graduation anything but a certainty.

There are, however, some factors that increase a student’s risk of dropping out, and as school leaders we should assess those factors.  Prevention is much more effective than repair.  Despite this truth, we often are dealing with at-risk behaviors after they have reduced the likelihood of graduation.

Let’s look at the risk factors for dropping out, according to research from the NDPC:



NDPC has identified 21 risk factors in four different domains (Individual, Family, Community and School).   As you look at the factors, they will not come as a surprise to you if you’ve been working in a school setting.  Most students can overcome a few of these factors, but it becomes increasingly difficult when many of these factors describe you.

We have to know our students well to know what factors leave them at-risk. 

Once we know their needs, then we can design what we do in such a manner that it can help reduce their risk factors and help them be more likely to graduate.  As we know, there are many factors that reside outside of the school domain, but, notice that one-third of the 21 risk factors are directly associated with school.  While we must also focus on factors outside of the school (personal, community and family domains), we should make it a point of pride to design our school experience as one that reduces the risk of dropping out rather than raises it.  That is not always the case.

Take a look at the school domain.  Think about what you do within your school.  What can you do differently to reduce the risk of dropouts?

This question is one that is best considered as a part of a comprehensive diploma plan;  for the moment, consider it by itself anyway.  When you begin to think about what you do at your school and become more intentional in your work, you’ll begin to shape your school experience into one that makes you a risk reducer, and that’s a good place to be.



Reducing Dropouts Is Everyone’s Business

What do we do to reduce the number of dropouts?  Each year, young people make the decision to withdraw from school before they have earned a high school diploma.  The celebration of graduation is an event with many contributors, not just those at the high school.  When a student earns a diploma, it represents a personal achievement supported by elementary and middle school teachers, the community, the student’s family, and also support from the student’s friends.  While we don’t always think of it as such, each time a student graduates from high school, it’s a celebration of effort supported by a cast of hundreds.

It’s also the same when a student doesn’t earn a diploma.  Just as the high school shouldn’t garner all of the credit for every graduate, neither should they shoulder all of the blame for every dropout.  Blame is the least important part of this equation; the reality is that each dropout comes at a cost.  Not just for the individual, but the group of people who live within the community.  Graduates are a celebration for everyone; the entire community suffers when a young person drops out.

That’s not always how we approach the issue of dropouts, but nevertheless it’s a factual approach.  While we often develop strategies to help students throughout their high school years, factors away from school and in years prior to high school are predictive of the likelihood that an individual will graduate.

In other words, dropouts aren’t just something for the high school to address; dropping out of school is a much broader issue. 

Dr. Sandy Addis, the Executive Director of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC), often shares this story about the nature of dropout prevention.  Addis was at a conference to speak about dropout prevention and he stood just outside the doorway of the room in which he was scheduled to present.  One of the attendees came past him in search of a breakout session to attend.  She asked Dr. Addis, “what session is going on in there?”  He replied to her that it was a time to talk about the Fifteen Effective Strategies to prevent dropouts.  The attendee looked back at him and say, “I work at an elementary school.  Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that!”



We know that there are many reasons that an individual may drop out of school and it’s more than one school, one teacher, or one strategy should reasonably be expected to do alone.  Graduating from high school is a cumulative moment affected by many people.  In the absence of a critical part of the equation, however, the likelihood of graduation becomes less for those who are most at-risk.

That’s why every community, every school system should have a consolidated diploma plan.  The NDPC offers a two-day Diploma Planning Institute to support the work of teams to create exactly such a thing.  The process of planning is critical to raising the level of importance to a matter that, despite the rise in graduation rates, is not going away.  Each year students drop out of school in every community in our nation.  What might reduce that number?

Having a plan is an important piece in dropout reduction because each community has its own circumstances, its own context, and its own strengths and challenges that factor into the equation.  We’ll be looking more about those factors and how to build a successful plan throughout the remainder of this week here at Principal Matters!




How Much Does Dropping Out Actually Cost?

So how much does dropping out cost anyway?  Didn’t I hear that people really didn’t need a college education anyway?  If you don’t need a college education, then do you really need a high school diploma?

Misinformation has become a sort of common thing in recent times, but its prevalence doesn’t diminish its adverse effects.  When people have the wrong information about important things, it can lead to tragic outcomes.

Early in my career, I taught Driver Education.  It was a great course to teach; the interaction with the students was unique, it was a course they had great interest in taking, and it was something that could literally be a life-changer for them.  Every single time I had a new group to work with, at least one person in the group would challenge me about the wearing of seat belts.  They would share a story about an aunt or an uncle who had been in an automobile accident and that they had been saved because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt.

More than one of them even spiced up their story with a reference that the emergency technicians themselves had said that if their loved one had been wearing a seat belt that they wouldn’t be here today.

That was the point that I would review Newton’s First Law of Motion with the class.  And then I would ask the EMT in town to speak to class just to tell them that NO EMT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD has ever offered advice for drivers to stop wearing belts.

But, as Mark Twain said, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again.” 

 Here’s the lie that’s floating around and morphing little by little, and it’s a dangerous one.  It’s the one where the value of education is questioned.   It begins innocently; with the push over the last decade for college and career, some circles begin to question the need for college if it gets you a career.  From there, the question is raised about the necessity of everyone having post-secondary education at all.  Next, we begin to impress ourselves with our own graduation rates while ignoring the numbers of young people in our community who don’t have a high school diploma.


Education is the key to opportunity.  When we begin to look at education as frivolous, unnecessary and a hindrance to real opportunity, we are missing the point.  Education is about freedom.  It is what has made the United States a place where upward economic mobility is possible.  Not sure that it’s still the case?  Take a look at the recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workplace (in the graph at the top of the page).  In it, we can see that it would take a high school dropout TWO LIFETIMES to earn as much as those with a Bachelor’s Degree.

Don’t listen to the falsehoods.  Economically speaking, the more formal education that you earn, the higher your lifetime earnings will be on average.  As educators, we need to have a fervency to keep kids in school not only to completion and graduation, but to preparation and opportunity.

You can read more about how to stop students from dropping out of school at , the site of the National Dropout Prevention Center.



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