Every year, thousands of young people in Massachusetts decide to quit high school, for various reasons. They might have been struggling in the classroom because of learning disabilities. Or they were older than their peers because they had repeated grades. They might have jobs, or a baby at home. Often, it’s a combination of factors leading students to drop out before getting their diplomas.
It’s a tough problem faced by public school districts all over the state, and one that has no silver-bullet solution.
According to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 7,894 students quit high school during the 2010-2011 school year, putting the statewide dropout rate at 2.7 percent — the lowest it’s been in a decade.
But some districts are still seeing high numbers.
Five in the region south of Boston had dropout rates higher than the state’s: Brockton (6 percent), Wareham (5.7 percent), Randolph (4.4 percent), Weymouth (3.4 percent), and Hull (3.1 percent).
A handful of districts in this area — Duxbury, Hanover, Norfolk County Agricultural, and West Bridgewater — reported losing only one student all year. South Shore Charter Public School and Foxborough Regional Charter School managed to retain all of their students and maintain a zero dropout rate.
Overall, dropout rates in Massachusetts have been disproportionately higher among Hispanic and black students, low-income students, special needs students, students with limited English skills, and students in urban districts.
A majority of students in Brockton, an urban school district, are from low-income families. The dropout rate there has increased from 5.4 percent in the 2008-2009 school year, when 234 students dropped out, to 6 percent in 2010-2011, when 266 students quit.
With an enrollment of 4,145 students, Brockton High School is the biggest high school in the state. At 3.5 percent, its dropout rate is slightly higher than the state’s and in line with the national rate (3.4 percent in 2009), but the district’s overall rate suffers because large numbers of students leave Brockton’s alternative high school programs before earning their diplomas.
The city has three alternative high schools: Goddard Alternative School serves students with special needs and psychological issues; the B.B. Russell Alternative School is for students with disciplinary and behavioral problems; and Brockton’s Champion High School enrolls at-risk youths between the ages of 16 and 21.
During the 2010-2011 school year, 87 of the 191 students at Champion dropped out (45.5 percent); Russell reported that 31 of its 77 students (42.5 percent) dropped out, and Goddard reported four dropouts in 2010-11 (12.1 percent).
At Brockton High, 144 students quit before earning their diplomas, a fact lamented by the school principal, Susan Szachowicz.
“Behind every one of those little percentage points is a kid,” said Szachowicz. “We’re never satisfied. Until it’s zero, we won’t be celebrating.”
Brockton High School teachers and guidance counselors keep a close eye on freshmen, according to Szachowicz. If a student begins to have trouble in class, the parents are called in and an “academic support contract” is drawn up.
Brockton High has an “Access Center” where students can receive extra help and tutoring. There’s also a “credit recovery program” that allows students to make up coursework, and a peer mentoring program called “Boxer to Boxer” in which seniors volunteer to serve as mentors to at-risk students.
Szachowicz said teachers try to provide students with support as soon as possible, “so they’re not facing the end of the year failing every class.”
There is another alternative option that has helped a number of at-risk students: the Gateway to College program, which allows students ages 16 to 20 to earn their high school diplomas by attending classes at Massasoit Community College. The program serves 115 students a year. Most of the students are from Brockton, and the rest come from Holbrook, Randolph, Norton, West Bridgewater, Middleborough, and Whitman-Hanson.
Identifying at-risk students early and providing them with “alternative pathways” toward earning a diploma is important, says Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, a Cambridge-based think tank that has studied the dropout situation in Massachusetts. There’s a need to “make sure the system is designed for all students,” he said.
Matthew Rideout, a Gateway to College alum, stopped going to class at West Bridgewater High School when he was 16. “High school wasn’t working for me,” he said.
But after earning his diploma through the Gateway to College program in 2010, Rideout decided to continue his education at Massasoit.
“The biggest thing for me was being able to set up my own schedule, and be in a more adult environment,” said Rideout.
Today, Rideout is 20 and working full time at a liquor store. He’s one semester from graduating with an associate’s degree.
Gateway to College has also been good for 21-year-old Tyrone Rawlings, who had decided to leave Brockton High School when he was in 10th grade. He was about two years older than his classmates, and being surrounded by younger kids wasn’t helping him. “I thought they were immature; they couldn’t take anything seriously. I was getting into trouble,” he said.
Rawlings spent the next year at Champion High School, and that’s how he found out about Gateway to College. “I thought it was a better environment for me, to get more done and be with people my own age,” he said.
Rawlings is expected to graduate from the Gateway to College program next semester. After that, he said he plans to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and enlist in the Army.
Disenfranchisement — similar to what Rideout and Rawlings experienced — is one of the top reasons students drop out of school, says Tom Brady, an associate professor of secondary education at Bridgewater State University. Brady has conducted research on public school districts in Southeastern Massachusetts and found that the students who tend to drop out “just don’t feel a connection to the school.”
Developing that connection is critical, he said. This can be accomplished in many ways — by providing peer mentors or adult coaches, or by assigning students to “check in” with a certain adult every week, he said. Providing different options and alternative programs is also important.
Hull High School principal Michael Devine is trying several approaches. One is using the MCAS exam to encourage his students to stay in school.
In 2009-2010, Devine lobbied to change a school policy that allowed only students who earned enough credits to take the MCAS exam. Devine pushed to give all second-year students the opportunity to take the test, regardless of their credits.
“It allows kids to show themselves that they can do it — they can earn a high school diploma,” said Devine. Since the new policy was implemented, many students who were on the verge of quitting school pressed ahead once they passed the MCAS exam, according to Devine.
“It was a shot in the arm for the kids,” said Devine.
In Hull, students can also choose to pursue two different diplomas. Level A diplomas require students to complete standard college prep courses. Level B diplomas offer students a broader range of choices, and require them to take at least one technology course, one art course, one year in a foreign language, plus a full year internship at a local business or service agency.
Devine said the Level B option “gives students the chance to dabble in a few different areas where they might not otherwise have had the opportunity, and find an area they are passionate about.”
Devine laments the loss of Hull High’s metal shop, woodworking, and computer-assisted drafting classes, which were eliminated several years ago due to budget cuts. The shop classrooms are now used for storage, and Devine hopes to bring those course offerings back someday.
“The biggest thing we as a community could do to reduce our dropout rate is get those shops open again,” he said.
Maintaining a zero dropout rate is not an impossible task. But it’s an accomplishment more often seen in affluent districts and vocational and charter schools.
Foxborough Regional Charter School, which was founded in 1998 and enrolls approximately 1,200 students in grades K through 12, has had a zero dropout rate for several years. The school draws students from 20 communities who must apply and are picked through a lottery; there are 2,800 students on the waiting list to get in.
Mark Logan, the school’s executive director and superintendent, said that in addition to small classroom sizes, all students have an academic advisor they meet with on a weekly basis to discuss challenges and set goals.
“We have extraordinary teachers,” he said. “They really get to know the kids.”