Efforts to curb the high rate of high school dropouts in the U.S. have been discussed for decades. However, new rallying cries from national leaders and organizations to address the problem have been broadcast nationwide in recent months.
Social workers and school social workers point out that their roles are critical in any efforts to keep children from becoming dropout statistics.
Media reports highlighted a study prepared for the America's Promise Alliance earlier this year. It warned that 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent when analyzing 2003-2004 school district data.
The study also showed most metropolitan areas suffered a considerable gap in the graduation rates between their inner-city schools and those in the surrounding suburbs. In contrast with city graduation rates, nationally about 70 percent of students graduate on time with a regular diploma. About 1.2 million students drop out annually.
In May, United Way, the country's largest nonprofit agency, announced an ambitious 10-year plan to promote increases in high school graduation rates. Brian A. Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way, stated that efforts to help students graduate are vital to their future.
"It's increasingly apparent that the basic building blocks of a good life — a quality education, stable income and good health — are beyond the reach of too many individuals and families," Gallagher said. "As a nation, we can't accept these conditions. We need to challenge the system to ignite a new social movement and begin to develop new partnerships and strategies which will create opportunities for a better life for all people."
Part of the organization's Goals for the Common Good: The United Way Challenge to America campaign is to cut by half the number of young people who drop out of high school.
United Way will also be an important partner in creating strong relationships to address the prevention of risky behaviors and root causes of poor health outcomes and disparities among groups, said Janet Collins, director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
Frederick Reamer, professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work in Providence, said he serves on the state parole board in Rhode Island. "I do a lot of work with prisoners, and the majority of them don't have a high school degree," he said. "It's not difficult to see where the seeds started in people who were led to criminal activity. What goes on under a high school roof is critical, and social workers tend to be the first to find out that there are major issues that may lead to dropping out of school."
Why is now such a critical time to address the dropout crisis?
Lynn Bye, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Social Work, said the breathtaking surge in new technology is requiring an educated workforce. Another reason is changes in the global market that have dramatically reduced the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., which typically require minimal education, she said.
Bye said if America is to compete among industrialized nations, key players can't risk being satisfied with current anti-dropout efforts.
Bye is no stranger to understanding the causes and effects of student dropouts. As a high school social worker in Minnesota for 18 years, she worked directly with students, teachers, counselors and parents to help children at risk of leaving school.
Studies tend to be consistent in explaining reasons students drop out, she noted. Students typically said they didn't feel anyone at their school cared about them, or they had to leave to financially support their families. Student boredom, large classroom sizes and language barriers also topped the list of reasons, Bye said.
While teachers may do all they can to help children understand skills they may need as an adult, social workers are specifically trained to understand and help deal with other aspects of children's lives that may result in a negative educational experience.
"Often, social workers and those in related settings serve as a liaison between the school, family and community, hoping to forge healthy relationships that promote positive development and achieve outcomes for students," said Paula Allen-Meares, the outgoing dean and a professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. "We also advocate for changing adverse school policies and practices that are harmful or undermine attendance."
Rochelle Leiber-Miller is a certified school social worker at a middle school in New Rochelle, N.Y. She said her district is fortunate to have 18 social workers who join forces with district counselors and school psychologists to reach at-risk students. She said a child can easily start to disengage from the academic process in the middle school level.
Leiber-Miller, an NASW member, is also a member of the School Social Work Association of America. She agreed with other social workers that parent involvement is a huge step in keeping a child interested in school.
"School social workers are the links to the families," she said. "They are such an important asset."
While there are many news reports highlighting the problem of high dropout rates, social workers offered some advice on ways those figures can be lowered.
Allen-Meares said a comprehensive and coordinated approach to the issue is needed, with support from local, state and federal agencies being a vital aspect of that work. She said many of the causes that contribute to dropping out of school are poverty, unsafe communities and schools and a history of behavioral problems for the student.
Bye said getting parents involved in helping the child succeed academically is key. Social workers can also help students set realistic goals and can work with administrators and faculty to provide a positive climate so students feel attached to their school. "Make it a school-wide challenge and a community effort," she said. "We used to host a family fun night to help families feel a part of their school."
She noted that not every student goes through the same learning process, and alternative schools are vital to students who need options besides the typical academic curriculum.
"Early intervention is key," Bye said. "Social workers can build relationships with teachers and help monitor a student's behavior and help address changes if things aren't working."
Bye also noted that social workers and school social workers can participate in school summits, which is a good way for them to learn more and help organize local efforts to address dropout rates in their schools.
While districts vary in the amount of funding dedicated to hiring school social workers, many school boards and administrators realize the value of keeping such trained professionals on staff, Bye said. "Even a limited number of school social workers can look for ways that can help students reach their potential with some creative programming ideas."
Allen-Meares has a diverse background in school social work, including authoring academic publications and serving on committees addressing the specialty. She said research shows a number of approaches that can have an impact on preventing dropouts.
Allen-Meares noted, for example, that some alternative schools have been effective as dropout interventions; that schools-within-a-school were effective; that interventions to build strong student-teacher relationships can help discourage students from dropping out; that social-cognitive skills training at school and improved parental management skills at home are moderately effective in reducing classroom disruptiveness and can potentially prevent suspension; and tutoring and counseling programs, as well as formal mentoring programs, can have a large positive effect on students' grade-point averages, self-esteem, classroom behavior and problem-solving abilities.
Allen-Meares said some school-based interventions may include: decreasing school size; monitoring diverse, interdisciplinary curriculums; exploring teaching expectations and practices; supporting use of individualized assessments to avoid competitive grading; involving teachers and staff in addressing student needs; developing alternatives to grade retention, tracking and suspension; implementing violence prevention and anti-bullying programs; and developing school-wide positive behavioral support systems.
While there are proven methods to address the nation's dropout rate, social workers said placing the issue in the public spotlight is an important first step in making changes for the better.
Dropout prevention efforts are "consistent with social workers' unique niche in human services," said Reamer. "Social workers have the best training where we tune into the environmental circumstances that may be affecting a student. We examine such things as environmental circumstances. We can be very assertive advocates in such ways as trying to have the school be more responsive to cultural or literary issues and helping devise a strategy that might be able to keep children in schools."
Leiber-Miller shared similar sentiments. "A lot of kids who we talk to after they dropped out of school say they're sorry they did it," she said. "We have to build a school climate where they want to come to school and aspire. If they don't value school, they won't come. Social workers can be the links to get them connected back to school."
NASW Government Relations Associate Nancy McFall Jean said those involved in school social work should be poised to advocate protecting and expanding the profession to meet the needs of children and families. She said she is working with staff from the office of U.S. Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns (D-N.Y.), a social worker, to create legislation that would enhance the school social work workforce through improved training and recruitment efforts. The bill is expected to be introduced this summer, McFall Jean said.