Efforts on behalf of the nation’s huge pool of young people who have not completed high school are gathering steam under the name of dropout re-engagement. Full-scale re-engagement means reaching out and finding young people who need high school credentials, assessing their educational status, referring them to school completion options and other services, and providing support to enroll and continue in a new school.
Last year, 14 re-engagement programs across the country, including those in Washington, provided education referrals to more than 10,000 young people. Programs received confirmation of enrollment of more than 6,000. Of those who enrolled, 73 percent completed a full additional year of school or graduated.
This new wave of re-engagement activity began a few years ago in the form of physical centers — youth-friendly locations where the assessment and referral takes place — and the approach has spread rapidly. In an interesting variant, several Denver-area school districts deploy staff to the coffee shops and bus stops where young people gather and provide support one-to-one at multiple locations.
Re-engagement professionals have taken note of the rapid growth of Washington’s HB1418-Open Doors program. Indeed, Washington’s recent progress stands in some contrast to what is happening in other states. Washington led with state policy; nationwide, most re-engagement initiatives began locally.
Common challenges and opportunities face re-engagement initiatives, whether the begin at the state or local level. These include structural factors such as the local mix of alternative schools, as well as practical items such as whether to offer credit recovery services in tandem with re-engagement referrals.
Washington’s first 25 Open Doors programs — nine of them virtual — typically combine re-engagement supports with alternative education at one site. Reengagement centers in Boston, Los Angeles, and Omaha, Neb., also offer some on-site education, but they place emphasis on making referrals to the best local alternative school option for that student’s particular needs. Drawing upon a range of alternative school choices maximizes opportunities for success because not every option works well for every student. Some, for example, may progress rapidly with earning credits online; others benefit from group projects.
To date, Open Doors has sparked promising partnerships between school districts, education service districts and community colleges. Other cities offer examples of how additional partners can strengthen and broaden efforts. For example, city government leaders in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Omaha have called attention to the need for re-engagement, and provided operating resources. The Los Angeles workforce agency spearheaded the re-engagement partnership with the large local school district and negotiated placement of school district attendance counselors in all 13 of the city’s youth workforce centers. Philadelphia’s child welfare department — apprised of the high incidence of foster youth in the dropout population — provided staff for the re-engagement center.
One more practical dimension for Washington re-engagement initiatives to consider stems from a core principle of youth development: All youth need strong connections with caring adults. For example, the Boston and Omaha re-engagement centers have developed specialized staff positions, youth workers who “stick with” the former dropout from initial outreach through re-enrollment and the alternative education experience. Building in such supports systematically is taking shape as the most promising practice for Open Doors and others to employ.
Andrew O. Moore is a Senior Fellow at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families in Washington, DC. He supports the NLC Dropout Re-engagement Network and provides technical assistance to cities and their partners nationwide to reengage formerly disconnected youth in education, employment, and civic life.