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The fact that some students do not graduate from high school has become an increasingly large problem in the United States, where the national dropout rate is higher than in any other industrialized nation. Students at-risk for dropping out tend to display poor academic performance, low academic motivation, and high levels of disciplinary referrals (Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986; Hickman, Bartholomew, Mathwig, & Heinrich, 2008; Roderick, 1993; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986). Students who dropout of school are more likely to skip class, have disciplinary problems, and to be suspended (Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986). Research shows that poor academic performance and discipline problems are closely related (Adams, 2008). The motivation and support that a student receives in school shapes his or her school experiences, and greatly influences later educational outcomes. Lack of such support could lead to dropping out (Roderick, 1993). Students at risk of dropping out are more likely to leave school if placed in a threatening, uninviting school climate.
The Saraswati Independent School District (SISD) is a very large school district that includes students from diverse backgrounds. The school district has an annual dropout rate of 12%, which is more than twice the state average. I am proposing a dropout prevention program based on the assumption that schools play a significant role in lowering the dropout rate. This dropout prevention program will be modeled after the dropout prevention projects APEX I and APEX III (Achievement in Dropout Prevention and Excellence) funded by the US Department of Education. The program will be implemented within four high schools in the SISD. APEX I was first introduced in 2002 as a three-year project in two New Hampshire high schools, one being Franklin High School (FHS). The annual dropout rate at FHS declined from 16.8% in 2001 to less then 3% in 2005 after the implementation of APEX I. Franklin High also saw a 50% reduction in office discipline referrals over three years. Results from student and staff surveys showed feelings of improved school climate and response to problem behaviors at Franklin High. A program evaluation showed the APEX I model had extremely promising results for students at FHS (Cortez & Malloy, n.d.). In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education decided to grant additional funding and the APEX I project was extend though 2009 as APEX II to serve 10 high schools across New Hampshire.
High schools with promising student outcomes tend to have well organized, consistent and positive systems of discipline and tend to have a philosophy that all students should be successful (Rumberger, 2004). The New Hampshire APEX II model is based on the philosophy that school factors can contribute to lowering dropout rates, and that all students should have the individualized supports necessary to succeed. Similar to the Saraswati Independent School District, students in New Hampshire struggle with numerous risk factors for dropping out, such as living in poverty, emotional disabilities, poor motivation, high rates of behavior problems, and poor academic achievement. The APEX II dropout prevention model combines three school improvement strategies; a data driven positive behavioral support system, an intensive individualized school-to-career service for the most at risk students (RENEW), and a student led needs assessment and action plan that allows students assess the schools, climate, safety, and learning. The primary goals of the APEX II model are to reduce dropout rates, improve individual student success, and improve overall school climate. The APEX II program is designed to reduce New Hampshire's dropout rate by 20% within two years. The Saraswati school district needs a dropout prevention program that will produce similar results.
Assessable Data System. A big part of the APEX II model is establishing an accessible data system. Program personnel collect data regarding tardiness, absences, office referrals for discipline problems, and survey data from students and school staff about school culture and school climate. Office discipline referrals include information about where, when, and why problem behaviors occurred, and data on detentions and suspensions. This data system is updated regularly and is readily accessible to teacher and administrators on an ongoing basis. School personnel examine and review the data to identify signs that a student is at risk for dropping out. These signs could include a high number of absences, a high number of office discipline referrals, or a high number of school suspensions. Information within the database is used to develop behavioral interventions for the entire student population, for groups of students, or for individual students. The data is also examined to determine the causes of disruptive behaviors. Data collection is the cornerstone of APEX II.
The dropout prevention program implemented in the Saraswati Independent School District will have a similar data system. The variables collected should include tardiness, absences, office referrals for discipline problems, and survey data from students and school staff about school culture and school climate. Office discipline referrals will provide a wealth of information. Many schools already collect office discipline referrals, tardiness, and absences. School personnel complete office discipline referrals when they observe student behavior and determine if the behavior is severe enough to warrant a referral. Office discipline referrals include useful information such as student names, name of referring staff member, the problem behavior, and the date, time of day, location, and possible antecedents and function of problem behaviors.
Tardiness, absences, and office discipline referrals should be entered daily into a computer program for tallying, summarizing, and graphing, to answer questions about students and their behaviors. Staff and student questionnaires will be completed and evaluated each semester to examine the overall climate of the school. The school secretaries could enter the data gathered on tardiness, attendance, and office discipline referrals daily. There will be specific goals set for each criterion (tardiness, absences, ODR) to examine the dropout prevention program's success and to identify what students need additional help. For example, to show current program efforts are successful, research suggests that the number of students with two or more office discipline referrals should be below 25% at the high school level. When a student receives two or more office discipline referrals within a year they will receive additional help. Similar criterion will be set for tardiness and attendance. School personnel will receive training at the beginning of each school year to learn the data and data system, and training on how to complete office discipline referrals.
Positive Behavior Support System. The APEX II model implements a Positive Behavioral Support System. The dropout prevention program implemented in the Saraswati Independent School District will also adopt a three-tiered Positive Behavioral Support System. Most PBS programs have been implemented in elementary and middle schools but some high schools have implemented PBS with positive results. Positive behavior support is a systemic, data driven behavioral support and improvement process that consists of three elements. PBS is designed to prevent disruption and address the behavioral support needs of students at risk of school failure. The PBS approach defines appropriate student behaviors that create an overall positive school environment. A system of positive behavior support is implemented in the classroom and other school settings, such as hallways and restrooms. In a PBS system, attention is focused on creating and sustaining primary (school-wide), secondary (group), and tertiary (individual) systems of support that make problem behavior less effective, efficient, and relevant. The success of the APEX II model depends on a school's willingness to sharpen its data collection and retrieval system so that teachers and administrators know who will benefit from which level of support, identify at-risk students at a very early point before they have experienced multiple failures, and determine how support will be offered. School personnel in the Saraswati Independent School District will receive training in the components of PBS and training on how to reduce problem behaviors while promoting prosocial behaviors.
To implement a positive behavioral support system, a School-wide or primary level support team is formed in each APEX II school, and consists of approximately 10-12 teachers, administrators, special educators, parents, and students. A similar team will be formed in each SISD high school implementing the dropout prevention program. This team will use the data system to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, to determine if the current plan is achieving attended outcomes, to show what areas need improvement, and to identify students who need additional support. The team will redesign the school's behavioral expectations; sharpen the school's data collection and retrieval systems; and design and implement school-wide interventions that will benefit all students. Universal interventions are designed to address the needs of the majority of the student body that have the fewest social, behavioral, or academic challenges. Primary or school wide interventions are intended to prevent problem behavior while teaching prosocial skills.
APEX II schools also develop a secondary level or "Targeted Team" of specialists and administrators that focuses on those students who exhibit challenging behaviors and who are at risk for school failure due to academic, social, or behavioral issues. Schools in the SISD implementing the program will also develop 'targeted teams'. The goal of this team will be to design interventions for a student or group of students based on Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA). These "function-based" interventions are proven highly effective in the reduction of problem behaviors and the associated negative consequences. Secondary level interventions may include group therapy to reduce aggressive behavior and adjustment difficulties or classroom based components to teach students adaptive behaviors that promote academic and social success. Students at the secondary level are closely monitored based on daily or weekly behavior goals.
RENEW Rehabilitation, Empowerment, Natural supports, Education and Work (RENEW). The decision to drop out of high school does not occur overnight, but it is often preceded by feelings that the student does not fit in at school and cannot benefit from what school has to offer. To connect with these students before they drop out, schools often need to look beyond the obvious. An APEX II facilitator trained in a school-to-career service model called "RENEW" works with staff members at each high school and with specialists from community-based organizations to identify individual students who are struggling to graduate or who have already dropped out of school. A support team is formed around each student and works with the student to develop individualized, student-directed school-to-career plans, designed to help the student earn credit toward graduation through appropriate alternative means. Students with disabilities, such as those with emotional and behavioral problems, often benefit from the individual systems of support offered through PBS within a wider context of the school-wide stated expectations. The SISD will also adopt a similar program and team at each high school to work with students who need individual interventions.
The intensive component in a PBS model typically includes services for students whose support needs extend beyond the capacity of the school. At the high school level, APEX II uses a model, RENEW (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural supports, Education and Work) for high-risk youth that has proven effective in helping students graduate, find employment and post-secondary education, and make the transition into adult life. The Saraswati Independent School District will adopt a similar program. The RENEW program supports students to develop personal futures plans and alternative high school graduation plans, provides the supports they need to complete their coursework, and assists with finding employment and with making those connections with resources in the community.
Addressing individual students' most difficult problems is one way schools can help keep more students coming back. Interventions in APEX II/RENEW model are designed to identify the students who need these supports and to address improvements in a student's life both inside and outside the school building through mentoring, individualized pathways toward high school graduation, vocational activities, mental health support services, tutoring and home visits, and other approaches. Each high school hires two full time mentors. Each mentor manages a caseload of 12 students and works one on one with their students on their career and education focused academic and behavioral issues. The APEX/RENEW mentors provide or help access supports such as, tutoring, internships, job shadow opportunities, and college visits. They also work with the students on the development of life skills such as budgeting, interview skills, and interpersonal skills. A summer program focused on social skill development is also provided for the students. Students in the RENEW program have an individual plan that focus on student interests and strengths, how the student describes themselves, and the student's dreams and goals. These plans are developed outside of the school setting and are facilitated by the students' family.
Student leadership initiative. Coordinators of the APEX II dropout program recognize that peer interaction is often the most effective way to reach at-risk students. The program therefore involves peers in dropout prevention activities through a student leadership initiative. This piece of the APEX II model includes a student-led data collection and analysis activity, which sets the stage for enhancement of student voices on the PBS Universal Teams. Students train as 'school climate' experts to assess the attitudes of their peers towards high school, and examine a variety of factors that influence a student's decision to drop out. At the end of every semester, students evaluate staff and student response on questionnaires regarding school climate. Among the factors addressed are school violence and bullying, prejudice, discrimination, low academic achievement in relation to school climate, and staff/student communication. Once this information is collected, student leaders work together to better understand fellow students' needs and perceptions of high school and develop effective, data-driven action plans within their schools that address behavioral issues, dropout prevention, and school safety and climate. Each school in the SISD implementing the dropout prevention program will adopt a similar student led team.
A program evaluation assesses the strengths and weakness of educational programs, measures student outcomes, and helps programs establish a rationale to receive additional funding. The evaluation process should focus on how well the program is being implemented based on the initial program description. In addition, the evaluation should examine efficiency of the program, how well the programs goals are being met, and the effect the program is having on participants. The data system implemented in the dropout prevention program will be important in the evaluation plan.
Data collection methods. The first step in the evaluation process is to identify the program components that will be evaluated. Program evaluators will start by gathering baseline data within each individual school before the implementation of the project. The annual dropout rate, the number of office referrals by grade, the number of students at each high school with 0-1 office referral per year, 2-5 referrals per year, and students with more than 5 office referrals per year, data regarding the 'top problem behaviors', and data on tardiness and attendance will be collected for evaluation per semester. Program evaluators will also gather data regarding student and staff perceptions of the school climate per semester. This will be conducted over a five-year period. Once an individual student enters the RENEW program their progress and successes will also be evaluated.
Evaluation questions. Next, program evaluators will generate evaluation questions or program criteria. The program will have a goal to reduce the district dropout rate by 30% within a 5-year period with is 6% annually. Each high school implementing the program will have a similar goal to reduce the dropout rate. Examining the annual dropout rate school wide and system wide will determine if the program is effective in reducing the dropout rate. The number of students with two or more office discipline referrals should be below 25% for each school by the first year of implementation and stay that way over the next 4 years. Office discipline referrals will be used to compare results from semester to semester and from year to year. This will give an index of improvement and can identify if the dropout prevention model is successful in reducing the number of problem behaviors in students. Examining 'top problem behaviors' will provide information about possible behaviors and situations the program has failed to change. Collecting data regarding school climate per semester will determine if the projects ultimate goal if providing a better school climate has been achieved.
Evaluation design. To evaluate each schools progress, the evaluation team will conduct a one-group time series design every semester examining variables collected in the data system. The dropout rate will be evaluated annually by school and by district. All other variables will be evaluated per semester by school and by district. This design will show changes over time in office discipline referrals, problem behaviors, tardiness, attendance, school climate ratings and the dropout rate to determine if the program is achieving its goals within a particular school. This type of evaluation will also be done for students who enter the RENEW program.
In addition, the program evaluation will compare a control group that is not receiving the dropout prevention program with an experimental group receiving the program. A number of high schools will receive the program and some will not. Schools that are similar demographically will be compared over a 5-year period based on the same experimental variables mentioned above. Matching schools for comparison will require examining demographic data such as dropout rate, percent of office discipline referrals, percentage of students with special needs, students receiving free and reduced lunch and socioeconomic status, race, end of course test results.
The Saraswati Independent School District can apply for the Public Schools of North Carolina Dropout Prevention and Intervention Grant or the Race to the Top Fund provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The NC Dropout Prevention Grant is available for any school district within the state of North Carolina. The grant supports programs that promote early identification of at-risk learners, effective services for at-risk learners, and improvement in school climate. The state has set aside thirteen million dollars to support programs and initiative that target students at risk for dropping out. Grant funding can amount for up to one hundred seventy five thousand dollars per year. The Race to the Top Fund provided by the U.S. Department of Education has an 'estimated range of awards' between 20 million and 700 million. The funds are reward to the lowest achieving schools. These schools must be adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace, and to compete in the global economy, that are building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction and are focuses on turning around the lowest achieving schools. The New Hampshire Department of Education was given over two million dollars over a three year period to fund the APEX II program. The grant rewarded to the Saraswati Independent School District must be enough to implement the program in four high schools over the course of 5 years.