By Frank Stanko
"There’s no problem too big that we can’t work out together,” said Leslie Lemke, Wahpeton High School counselor, about the students she serves.
October is National Dropout Prevention Month, sponsored by the National Dropout Prevention Center. It is a time that challenges America to be better informed on how to prevent students from dropping out of school, according to the center.
Throughout Richland County, high school and college educators, counselors and specialists are using Dropout Prevention Month to review their methods for student retention, reflect on what works and what doesn’t. They hope to encourage support from not only the community, but peers of young people at a crossroads.
It isn’t just high school students who face challenges at school. College-age students are also vulnerable.
“The first three weeks for a first-year student are critical,” said Jane Vangsness Frisch, vice president of North Dakota State College of Science’s Student Affairs Office. “The other time that’s most critical is during the second semester, when first-years are starting to register for fall classes. This often coincides with midterms, when students can feel overwhelmed and wondering if college is really meant for them.”
Likewise, Wahpeton Public Schools indicates a crucial time, during the early years of high school, that the risk of dropping out is greater.
“Once you come to ninth grade, you’re earning class credit and if (a student falls) behind substantially in the first year, it’s an uphill struggle from then on,” said Superintendent Rick Jacobson. “When they have very few credits earned each year, it’s almost impossible for the school to get a student to graduate on time.”
To curb dropping out, schools will provide tutoring and classes designed to make up the lost credits. At the same time, they’re also taking closer looks at the students themselves. What are their expectations? What’s going on at home? Who and what motivates them?
“Not every student is designated for college,” said Superintendent Tim Godfrey, Richland 44 School District. “We want to provide the best tools and resources for post-school life. Not just college, but post-school life. We’ll use the vocational technology center, our guidance counselor, provide opportunities for job shadowing.”
Attendance issues are often a leading factor in a student becoming at risk for dropping out.
“We have a lot of kids every year whose attendance is just not very good. They’re the ones who are at risk for dropping out, or they walk around here like they don’t care. You can only lead them to water so long and then they’ve got to make their own decisions. We can provide all the help and counsel they want, but ultimately they have to make the decision that this means something to them. We will do everything we can within reason to get them to that point to graduate,” Jacobson said.
And even the best laid plans can’t guarantee any one conclusion. Bruce Anderson, principal of Richland 44 High School for the past eight years, recalled a senior student whom he had worked with, who appreciated the effort to get him to graduation, but still decided to drop out with seven weeks left in the school year.
Richland 44 High School, which currently teaches 125 students in grades 7-12, always has 1-2 students in each class who may be at risk for dropping out, Anderson said. One advantage to a small student population is the ease in working one-on-one with struggling students. And there are the untapped possibilities, like utilizing student culture, to prevent dropping out.
“Students don’t always want to hear (about not dropping out) from an adult,” Anderson said. “In the years I’ve been here, when parents reach me, they’re sometimes at their last stop. ‘Whatever you can do, please do it for my son and daughter.’ They’ve put in this great effort, but the student just doesn’t want to listen to mom and dad. If they can hear it from (their peers), maybe it’ll sink in.”
Vangsness Frisch agrees, citing the importance of NDSCS’ message that everyone on campus is there to help a student and get them on the road to success.
“Faculty, staff, fellow students — anyone on campus can refer a student to the Student Success Center,” she said. “The faculty typically will refer a student if they’ve missed class three or more times and we’ll have a specialist who’ll have a conversation with them. Not to wag their finger, but to find out what’s going on. Maybe there was an illness or an emergency, those life things that happen.”
Along with that, NDSCS encourages students to adjust their perceptions, to not look at tutoring or use of the Student Success Center as indications of not doing well, but rather as a proactive approach to continuing to do well. According to Vangsness Frisch, the Student Success Center was contacted 9,000 times by students during the 2015-16 school year.
Barbara Spaeth-Baum, NDSCS’ executive director of college relations and marketing, also pointed out the college’s success with events like the start of school year dances, which she and Vangsness Frisch said have helped students feel connected with their campus and community.
If a student does withdraw from NDSCS, Vangsness Frisch said, the school will continue to reach out to them for a time, letting them know that unless it was a behavioral-related withdrawal, they’re certainly welcome to return.
“When they leave, they’ll sit down with a counselor and discuss the transition,” Vangsness Frisch said. “What it looks like, financially, academically and personally. We make sure that we’re not just sending them out into the wild blue without knowing and understanding some of those factors.”
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