South Texas High School Demonstrates the Importance of “Utilizing the Village” to Recover Dropouts

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) hosted a Webinar, “Utilizing the Village: Building Community Support for Dropout Prevention and Recovery Work in Rural Communities.” It was the first in a series of three Webinars that will focus on dropout prevention and recovery efforts in rural areas. This presentation emphasized that dropout recovery and prevention efforts are not possible without community-wide support and a strong system in place to identify struggling students.

In order to help contextualize  dropout prevention and recovery in rural areas, presenters shared demographic information about rural schools and their students. Overall, there are 9.6 million students in rural schools – with 3.4 million attending rural high schools. That amount makes up 20% of high school students. Often, dropouts are misconstrued as solely a prominent issue in urban areas yet, 1 in 4 students in rural areas do not graduate from high school. The rural student population also consists of 1 in 4 being students of color. The population is also very mobile – one in eight students change residences within the past 12 months. There are 800 rural districts within the United States that have been placed at the top of the student poverty rate – often these districts are referred to as the "Rural 800." Many of the Rural 800 are located in 15 southern and southwestern states. In these districts, 61% of students graduate, as compared to 67% in non-rural ones.

The Webinar highlighted a program in South Texas that has been successful in reversing its dropout rate and, similar to findings by ED, has shown that partnership within rural communities is very organic and "almost the DNA of rural communities, that people work together well." Some of the common challenges and barriers to success rural schools face relate to limited resources; decreased funding; low retention rates for teachers; and the geographic isolation of students' family members.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo District (PSJA), the South Texas school district highlighted, shared its success story through the principal of its College, Career, and Technology Academy (CCTA), Linda Carrillo, and another representative from the district, Arianna Vazquez-Hernandez. CCTA is the district's dropout recovery campus located just seven miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The program serves students between the ages of 18-26 years old, as it is able to receive ADA funding under Texas House Bill 1137. Its population of over 32,000 students is 99% Hispanic, and also highly economically disadvantaged. In 2007, it accumulated over 500 dropouts per year – with increases every year. A new Superintendent, Dr. King performed research to address the school's main issue of dropouts and found that the mindset around being a dropout needed to be examined and reversed. Many of its dropouts were only a few credits short of graduating, but did not want to return to an environment where they felt they were not successful to begin with. Thus, Dr. King worked to alter the mindset in the academy. They made the campus more inviting and utilized all of its community members to accomplish this.

One specific component that the community contributes to is "Countdown to Zero", the district's annual fall dropout recovery walk. Individuals including the Superintendent, Mayor, and Police Chief, walk door-to-door inviting students back to finish high school. The program works as a bridge to help students earn a diploma and also attend college. Well before graduation, CCTA students are immersed in a college-going culture. Students can receive dual credits through a partnership with South Texas College, and CCTA also offers further tailoring of its curriculum with a flexible day option, a daycare, and a counselor to address the students' social-emotional issues. A community liaison is also available on-campus and full-time to get to know individual students and ensure students are attending school. Carrillo talked about developing a mindset that believes college is possible when the students are given the tools they need to be successful. Since 2007, 900 students have "recovered" from dropping out and have graduated high school. CCTA's goal is to reach its 1000th graduate this summer.

While the PJSA success story may be unique with its demographic, resources, and other variables, Doris Terry Williams of the Rural School and Community Trust also presented on the Webinar and discussed involving  all community members in creating successful students. Specifically, a “visioning process” was instituted in the Northeast part of North Carolina, which posed the following questions to the community:

  1. What would a community look like that ensures the success of all of its children?
  2. What are the relationships that need to be in place for children to succeed and thrive?
  3. What is the community's capacity to ensure the success of all of its children?

Williams said that as members truly considered these questions, attitudes began to change. Across diverse groups and sectors of the community, new mindsets evolved as people gained confidence that they could more positively impact the children in their community. Out of these mindsets, a Community Action Plan was developed to engage its residents, business leaders, civic organizations, and other groups in effecting the success of students in the community. While this Webinar focused on the importance of utilizing all individuals of a community and honing in on a natural skill of rural areas, the next two Webinars of this series (one in the Fall 2012 and one forthcoming  in  2013) will focus on intervening and predicting rural dropouts early in a student’s career.

To view the Webinar recording, transcript, and other offered resources, visit:

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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