Fighting The Odds: Inside D.C.'s Dropout Crisis

City Year Volunteers

WAMU 88.5 has spent the past several months delving into the high school dropout crisis in Washington, D.C., where more than 40 percent of students fail to complete their studies within four years. We visited innovative schools, talked with kids managing to succeed despite having the deck stacked against them, and compared the U.S.'s floundering graduation rate to that of schools overseas.

In a culmination of the reporting done for American Graduate, WAMU takes a closer look at one of the worst schools in the District and its efforts to find a formula that helps to turn around the D.C. education system. Listen to the entirety of the hour-long piece, or read the highlights below.

Failing at the 'ABCs' — the heart of the dropout crisis

The hallways of Browne Education Campus in Northeast D.C. are plastered with colorful posters designed to motivate students and staff. "Think Big!" and "Teachers Make All Other Professions Possible," they say.

The posters are part of Principal Rashida Tyler's efforts to raise expectations at this school, one of the lowest performing in the District. But Tyler has found educational catch phrases are much easier said than done.

"It's amazing, if we change one aspect of our school programming, how hard it is just to get everybody to buy in and to understand the rationale," she says.

Tyler has set an ambitious goal of a 20 percent increase in math and reading test scores at Browne. But she wants, more importantly, "to see our students love learning and set them up for life," she says. "That's the kind of kids I want to raise and it's just really hard and it hasn't been the norm for our students."

Ninety percent of the students at this K-8 school come from low-income families, and the overwhelming majority of children are struggling academically. Only 22 percent of students can read at grade level.

Browne is required by the federal government to improve. Last year, administrators partnered with a Johns Hopkins University program called 'Diplomas Now,' an education model that involves organizing students into small groups and providing specialized curricula and one-on-one mentoring.

Thomas Acampora, who is responsible for implementing the program at Browne, believes starting early with interventions makes sense.

"When I taught ninth grade, there were a lot of cases where it seemed like we [got to] the child too late," he says. "If you identify the problem early, why not solve it?"

For many years, identifying the heart of the problem — exactly how many students are dropping out — wasn't always easy. Just a decade ago, the percentage of students completing high school was measured using a telephone survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, according to Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, one of the nation's top experts on dropouts.

That survey "doesn't include people in prison, doesn't include people who don't want to talk to people who call them at night," Balfanz says. "And also, people know it's important to graduate so when you ask them how many people in your household graduated from high school, [they say] 'Oh, everybody.' So all sides sort of inflated it and agreed we don't have a problem when we really did."

Since then, the methods used by different states to calculate graduation rates have been dizzyingly different, which meant they couldn't be compared — until now. A new method, called the adjusted graduation cohort rate, requires states to follow every individual child from the ninth grade until he or she walks across the stage to receive that diploma. It takes into account students who change schools and get held back.

Under the new, more rigorous count, D.C.'s graduation rate appears to have plummeted overnight. It was 76 percent. Now, it's 59 percent. D.C. officials have set an ambitious goal to improve that. By 2017, they say, they want 75 percent of all high school freshmen to graduate in four years. But it isn't clear how exactly the District will meet that target.

A struggling school seeks a turnaround

Every morning before class, City Year volunteers gather in front of Browne Education Campus to do "power cheers" with students. One of those volunteers, Anna Gaeckle, 18, says her goal is to get students to smile at least twice a day.

"I dance around, or I'll make up songs about them or talk in weird voices," she says. "A lot of them are in really tough situations, so I want them to know that someone loves them."

Truancy is a problem at Browne, as is discipline. On a single day last November, there were eight fights; the police were called in to deal with two of them. Browne is not unique, Balfanz says. High poverty schools across the U.S. often share common characteristics.

Eight years ago, Balfanz co-founded Talent Development High School in Baltimore. Teachers use specialized curricula created by Johns Hopkins researchers and get a lot of additional training. Classroom ratios are kept at about 20 students per teacher, and students are taught a range of life skills, such as how to manage their time and how to talk to adults.

Now, Browne Education Campus is using that model, known as Diplomas Now, to try to keep kids on track. The program costs approximately $600 more per student each year, which is being paid for with federal dollars.

A school with a positive culture and great teachers can work for approximately 80 percent of the children, according to Acampora. Another 15 percent need a little more "nagging and nurturing," which the City Year volunteers help with, he adds.

What about the rest? "There's kind of a 5 percent that's really rough and really tough and has challenges that's outside the normal scope of a school to solve," he says. "They have some significant need that needs to be met before they're ready to learn."

That's where another partner in Browne's support network, Communities in Schools, comes in.

Deon Toon, a counselor with the program who works at Browne Education Campus, connects children with social services. She also teaches students to work out their differences because every day, neighborhood rivalries and cyber bullying spill into school through Facebook and other social media sites.

Most students want to do well in school, but often, they aren't sure how, Toon says. So her job takes time and patience.

"You go home, you have your dirty martini, you come back and start all over," she says with a laugh.

At the end of the first year of the Diplomas Now program, Acampora says Browne is showing results.

"There were 80 students last year who were off track in terms of attendance within grades 6-8," he says. "And by the end of the year, we had only about 12 students who had off track attendance."

Behavior problems are down 40 percent, and there was an almost 20 percent drop in students failing math.

Acampora estimates the extra adults working at Browne through the Diplomas Now program put in approximately 600 additional hours each week to support students, staff and teachers. Multiply that effort by what would be needed to help thousands of students in schools across the country, and you get a sense of how big of a problem there is to solve.

Looking ahead locally and globally

It's a typical day at Browne, and City Year volunteers stand outside the Northeast D.C. campus, supervising students who run around playing before the morning bell. Joseph Brooks, 12, is getting his homework reviewed by a volunteer. He received an A in reading; it's a score that makes him beam. He didn't always make good grades.

"I was a bad student," he says. "Doing bad things like running the halls. I wasn't doing my work, just sitting, talking to people in class, and hitting people a lot. I liked hitting boys and girls."

Joseph showed all the risk indicators for dropping out. He didn't attend classes, got into trouble and routinely received poor grades. That changed when the national program Diplomas Now was implemented at Browne.

It has a three-pronged approach to help the lowest performing schools improve: City Year volunteers mentor children; Johns Hopkins University provides professional development training for teachers; and the Communities in Schools organization helps connect families with social services.

Joseph's D's have become A's since Diplomas Now began. "Yesterday I was excited!" he says. "I got the highest grade in sixth grade! Everybody else had C's and D's."

When Joseph grows up, he'll compete with students from all over the world for jobs. Three out of every 10 U.S. students won't graduate with their high school class, statistics show, and that has implications for the nation. In 2009, President Obama told students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. that dropping out was not patriotic.

"If you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country," he says.

Obama has said other countries were "out-educating us." It seems they're also out-graduating us. The U.S. used to be number one for high school graduation, but times have changed — in 2009, the U.S. ranked 21 out of 26 developed countries for graduation rates, according to Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"The completion rate is pretty low by international standards," Schleicher says.

Some believe American schools have diluted their academic mission by emphasizing the social experience, such as sports, proms and clubs. Those activities teach qualities such as creativity and teamwork, but don't increase knowledge of mathematics or literature, said Tom Loveless, a researcher with the Brookings Institution,.

"So there's a price to pay," Loveless says. "When you do the statistical analysis of what countries are growing rapidly now, they tend to be the countries that have an education system that's focused on academic skills."

Refocusing on those academic skills is part of the goal of the Diplomas Now program at Browne Education Campus. Acampora says it's starting to work. Since the beginning of this academic year, students missing school is down 60 percent, behavior problems are down 70 percent, and there's at least a 30 percent drop in students failing math and English," the administrator says. Students have just completed D.C.'s standardized testing, and the results will be out later this year.

The promising early gains at this school are in jeopardy though. Its budget has been reduced by $300,000 for the next academic year, and Principal Tyler characterized the cuts as "devastating" in an email she sent to staff recently. "It's with a heavy heart Browne Elementary School will no longer be able to fund the Diplomas Now program," she wrote. Tyler would not talk about her decision to "repurpose" the federal funding that's paying for Diplomas Now, despite repeated requests.

The cuts are coming because Browne is projected to have approximately 30 fewer students next year, according to Theodore Thompson, who directs DCPS's Office of School Turnaround. The budget of every school is tied to school enrollment.

Because Diplomas Now is a support program, designed to enhance what teachers do in the classroom, "principals have some tough decisions," he says. "Do I want to retain programs that support the work, or do I want to put my investment in the work itself? That leads to student proficiency in standardized tests."

Thomas hasn't seen a report on how effective Diplomas Now program has been at Browne, he says; he just started in this job six months ago. But Diplomas Now is applying for grants and trying to raise the money it will need to stay involved at the school.

Meanwhile, there are still a couple months to go before the end of this academic year. Toon, the Communities in Schools counselor, worries about the eighth graders who are showing some progress. They'll now leave to go to high schools where they might be "swallowed up," she says.

"I hate it," she says. "We shelter them because, although our kids like to act big and bad, they're not. I don't think they're prepared."

Acampora agrees.

"As a teacher, that's what I asked myself as well," he says. "Is it a happy event? What does their future look like?"