The startling news that Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) have a high drop out rate came as a surprise to many people when a Johns Hopkins researcher found that one in ten American high schools have graduation rates of less than 60 percent – essentially “drop out factories.” Four out of five GRPS high schools are considered “drop out factories,” according to researcher Robert Balfanz. Those high schools include: Grand Rapids Central, Grand Rapids Creston, Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills and Grand Rapids Union.
To help manage the systemic issue and set plans in place to help struggling students, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation recently received a grant of $100,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint. The Mott Foundation grant will be matched with local dollars and the funds will be put toward keeping students in high school and helping those who have already dropped out, to return to education.
The grant will focus on four systemic changes to address this serious issue. They include:
Launching an Early Warning System
The key to unlocking opportunities for out-of-school youth starts with trusted information. Research tells us that by collecting and acting on the right indicators it can be predicted with 66% accuracy which elementary school students will go on to possibly dropout of high school.
This is not a program but a systemic early intervention process that will train instructional and administrative staff to:
- Identify struggling students at critical grade levels
- Assess their academic and social supports
- Tailor an individualized safety net for that student through the assistance of Community Schools Coordinators that has been deployed in eight high need schools.
The system change begins with third graders. “It is during this time that students must make a difficult transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Change it and you can change the system. It is at this critical juncture where we will use the power of prevention to change a child’s trajectory and get them back on the path for school success and completion,” said Wendy Lewis Jackson, program director for Grand Rapids Community Foundation. A layered process will track students from third grade on and reach out to identify additional students in 5th, 7th and 9th grades.
Improve the Connections and Coordination
Despite a multitude of efforts underway to respond to the needs of out-of-school youth, many systems continue to operate in silos. This landscape has made it easy for students to slip through the cracks in our service sectors. There are good programs and initiatives underway in education, workforce development, and non-profit organizations but collaboration, if it occurs at all, is often among projects and not between systems.
Establish a Policy Agenda for Change
The Community Foundation intends to identify and work to remove policy or procedural barriers that impede coordinated community-based service delivery for out-of-school youth. Therefore, public policy education will be one of the most critical activities of the systems change effort in Kent County. “We have integrated each of our goal areas into a project framework designed to support systemic reform through policy change,” said Lewis Jackson.
Building Urgency for Change in the Community
Communicating the need for change is critical. The community must begin to turn care and concern into action. Through the grant the Foundation proposes to engage the media in building urgency for systemic reform in the policies that negatively affect out-of-school youth.
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation is partnering with Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent Intermediate School District and Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative and its partners the Steelcase and Frey Foundations on this effort.