+ Reaching Dropouts With New Media

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Los Angeles educators, facing unrelenting pressure to raise low high school graduation rates, are turning to YouTube, MySpace, test messaging, and radio waves to reach students at risk of dropping out of school.  They also hope to lure back thousands who have already left.

The LA Unified School District is the nation’s second largest, with 708,000 students.  It is believed to be the first to use social networking sites and text-messaging communications as a vital part of a dropout-reduction strategy.

The primary messengers to these at-risk kids will be students who have come back to finish their diplomas after abandoning school, said Debra Duardo, the director of LA Unified’s dropout-prevention and -recovery program. 

They will post video testimonials on YouTube, and build groups on popular MySpace message boards to spread the word about their own experiences and the alternatives that exist for earning a diploma.  It does not usually require a return to one of the district’s giant four-year high schools, for example.

There is a list of at least 17,000 dropouts to recover.  The district’s graduation rates have been under fire — especially since the mayors campaign last year to gain some control over the school system.

“The new media approach is very creative and thoughtful and should reach kids where they are,” said Russlyn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based research and advocacy group that supports increased rigor in high schools for all students. 

“For the district to take this on is a very big deal, but where they run a risk is if it ends up being dropout recovery for the purpose of recovery only and not for getting these kids meaningful diplomas that prepare them for college and work.”

Independents studies, including Education Week‘s Diplomas Count report — put the ditrict’s graduation rate at 50%.  A Harvard University study showed that just 39% of Latino and 47 % of African-American students in the district who should have graduated in 2002 actually did so.  But  District officials say those figures are too low: they cite 25.5% as their latest dropout figure.

The goal is to reduce the dropout rate by 5% this year.

The outreach enterprise is called My Future, My Decision.  It builds on a previous anti-dropout campaign, in which district leaders hired 80 special counselors to work in the middle and high schools where the largest numbers of students are concentrated.

These “diploma-project advisers” identify which students are most in danger of dropping out and then work with those children, meet their parents, and design an individual graduation plan for them.  The plan may include catching up on credits by taking online courses, enrolling in classes at a community college, or switching to an alternative placement such as contiuation high schools, which are small schools for students older than 16 who may need evening courses and other accomodations if they work or have children.

The advisers also go door to door to find students who have already left.  But the limitations of that approach are what drove district leaders to look for alternative ways to reach them.

They sought advice from the peers of the teenagers they most want to reach.  “What they told us is that we needed to be online, on the social networking sites that they use to communicate with each other,” said Ms. Duardo.

Ads on two of LA’s youth-oriented radio stations have already been launched and will continue for several weeks.  An ad campaign is also under way to get youths to send a text message from their cellphones to a number that triggers an immediate return of messages to their phones — written in abbreviated “text speak” — with tidbits on the higher earning power of high school graduates and referrals to the district’s dropout prevention Web site.

 source: Teacher Magazine online (www.teachermagazine.org) on 10/18/07

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