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Some school districts in California are working to establish an “early warning system” to identify middle grade students who are at risk of dropping out, and then to vigorously intervene so they don’t.

So far, seven school districts — including Sacramento City Unified, Vacaville Unified, and Victor Valley Union High School District northeast of Los Angeles — are using a free data tool developed by the National High School Center, a division of the American Institutes for Research, to track how students are doing on a range of measures such as attendance, school behavior, and course performance.

The districts are part of an emerging national effort by schools to more consciously use data to identify students on the path toward dropping out.

It is standard practice for teachers and principals to be on the lookout for at-risk students and to keep them in school. But often they make decisions about which students are most at risk “on an intuitive basis, rather than actually through data,” said Ellen Ringer of the California Department of Education’s Improvement & Accountability Division.

In the pilot project — led by a partnership that includes the California Department of Education and the National High School Center — schools are supposed to establish a team made up of teachers, counselors, a district representative, and the principal or other school leader with decision-making authority. After the student data are inserted in the early warning tool, the team reviews reports on individual students and the school as a whole, and sorts at-risk students by the kind of at-risk behavior they are exhibiting.

The program just got started at Jepson Middle School in Vacaville, with an enrollment of slightly more than 900 7th and 8th grade students.

“We can gather a great deal of information in one place faster than we have ever done it before,” said principal Kelley Birch. “Instead of doing it by hand, the program now uploads it from our data system in one place.”

How students are doing in English and math, “demerits” for bad behavior that they have received, their scores on standardized tests, and their attendance records get entered into the data tool. The program might show that in the first quarter a student may only be at risk for attendance. In the second quarter, it might show that same student at risk not only from attendance, but also from failing English and math. It will also show what interventions have been instituted — or haven’t — to help a student get back on track.

So far, the program has identified 140 students as being at risk.

“It probably saves two or three days worth of two counselors’ time looking through records by hand,” said Birch. “It allows counselors to spend time with the kids and implementing interventions, rather than getting the data.”

Doing it by hand also makes its more likely that some at-risk students might be missed. “Now I can spend half an hour, and the program can show me which kids are at-risk for what and I can just give the names to the counselors,” she said.

The program takes advantage of research from Johns Hopkins University showing how students can be identified early using information that schools already collect. EdSource’s Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades study underscored that schools that do best pay attention not only to students’ previous academic records, but also to previous behavior and attendance.

Scott Manley, a school counselor at Lakeview Middle School in the Victor Valley Union High School District, says the tool has helped him identify students in trouble who have not been referred to him by a teacher or parent.

“As a counselor, we have to rely on others to bring things to our attention,” he said. “A lot of times the ones brought to our attention are a nuisance or have some sort of issue that is almost crying out. This tool allows us to identify those who fly underneath the radar.”

For example, one student had missed 24 days of school yet had managed to keep up academically and had no other behavior problems. The tool flagged the student.

Missing class in middle school is one of the risk factors for dropping out in high school, Manley said. “Students with frequent absences may be able to keep up with the academics at the middle school level, but as they progress into high school and the courses get more rigorous, they’re not going to be able to miss that much school and be successful.”

One challenge is to interpret the data and figure out why a student is becoming disengaged from school.

For example, if a student’s attendance is declining, educators would need to look into the reasons behind it. The student might be concerned about his or her safety at school, or might be taking care of a younger sibling or sick parent at home, said Ringer from the California Department of Education.

Or for a student with growing disciplinary problems, the team might discover that his or her acting out is “a problem in one teacher’s classroom, but it’s not so much a problem in another teacher’s classroom,” she said.

Also critical to the success of the program is what happens after students have been identified as being at-risk. At Jepson, for example, students may be given an extra hour of instruction with their teachers or tutoring help from a UC-Berkeley student.

Students with behavior problems are required to spend an hour a day three times a week working with “WhyTry?” drop-out prevention materials. On the other two days, they are in study hall, making up assignments or doing homework.

“In the past, there were students we missed, and their problems multiplied,” said Birch. “With this program, the student is highlighted, and I can’t miss it.”

The school also relies on information and data it receives from the elementary school attended before students come to Jepson Middle School, so staff can start working with at-risk students as soon as they arrive. “We want to catch kids before they get here,” she said. “In middle school when you only have two years, you don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

Although some high schools in the pilot program use the data tool as well, that is not the case at Vacaville. As a result, Jepson must pass along information about students in the form of a written report, which means that high schools cannot use the data-driven approach as effectively. At Victor Valley Union High School District, the plan is for the local high school to implement the tool next year so that Lakeview Middle can seamlessly transfer the 8th grade student data, said Gerald Shaw, Lakeview’s principal.

“What we eventually want to do is make this a K–12 system,” Ringer said. That way, the early warning system would be “accessible and provided to every school, and every school district, in California.”

Researchers from WestEd and the American Institutes for Research are documenting the outcomes of the pilot project.

Districts with schools participating in the pilot:

  • Brentwood Union School District
  • Hemet Unified School District
  • Manteca Unified School District
  • Sacramento City Unified School District
  • Upland Unified School District
  • Vacaville Unified School District
  • Victor Valley Union High School District



On Track for Success: The Use of Early Warning Indicator and Intervention Systems to Build a Grad Nation, from Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, November 2011.

Early Warning Indicator Systems, from Education Commission of the States, July 2011.

Putting Middle Grades Students On the Graduation Path, by Robert Balfanz, June 2009.

EdSource’s Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades study, by Trish Williams, Michael W. Kirst, Edward Haertel, et al., February 2010.

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Louis Freedberg is a former executive director of EdSource and a veteran education journalist.

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  1. tina dress 11 years ago11 years ago

    I am very interested in getting information about how to deal with students who dropout in ninth grade. I am running a summer program for incoming ninth graders and would very much like to develop some research on the subject.

    thank you
    tina dresss