Toward Engagement Nation: A Review of PBS’ Dropout Nation

Frontline webpage on Dropout NationPBS’ recent FRONTLINE documentary “Dropout Nation” (available online) provides an inside look at the American high school dropout crisis. Contrary to its name, “Dropout Nation” focuses on one high school, Sharpstown High School (SHS) in Houston, TX. SHS had once been labeled a “dropout factory,” but has since been reconstituted and is now turning around, thanks to a Houston Independent School District initiative called Apollo 20, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, and others.

“Dropout Nation” follows four SHS students who are at risk of dropout (according to SHS), eliciting their perspectives on why they are struggling in school and tracking SHS’s efforts to help them persist and graduate. The film is ultra-recent, with footage from the 2011-12 school year. Other reviews of “Dropout Nation” have been pretty superficial or positive, and don’t really question the school’s practices or its approach to disengaged youth. (Read two such reviews at ‘Dropout Nation’ a story of hope and “Dropout Nation”.) Our Check & Connect eyes saw it differently—we saw a school with an inconsistent and ineffective approach to helping disengaged students.

The SHS Context and Approach to Disengaged Students

One of the first things you notice about the four students being followed in the film is that they are all students of color. The SHS student body is only 3% White, and dropout rates are higher among some minority groups, but the choice of these four students also may give the public the misimpression that dropout is only a problem among students who “look” at-risk. In fact, as “Dropout Nation” notes, the defining demographic at SHS is not race but socioeconomic status. Most SHS students live in poverty, and associated issues such as high mobility complicate the school’s efforts to keep them in school.

SHS has 1,300 students in grades 9-12, and an early scene conveys the difficulty the size of the school poses for helping all students feel valued. One administrator radios another that “black Adidas with white stripes on the sleeves” has come to school late and needs to be routed to a particular classroom. The student has to be referred to by his garment because the administrators don’t know his name.

As part of the Apollo 20 initiative, SHS is making impressive improvement efforts—the camera pans over a room papered with various kinds of student data, another scene depicts an administrator sharing data that show that SHS math achievement has improved enough to put it at the top of the district, and its graduation rate has also improved markedly. But while the school is looking better on paper all the time, some of its means to those ends are less than ideal.

Where SHS Falls Short

While some SHS students can only be referred to by what they’re wearing, others—including the four profiled—have unusual levels of access to teachers and administrators, with one making visits to the Principal’s Office every day to get a snack and “check in,” another reviewing the results of a pregnancy test with an administrator, and another living at the same administrator’s house for awhile. Clearly, SHS wants to help disengaged students succeed and makes special efforts to that end.

But SHS teachers and administrators seem to struggle to take a consistent approach with disengaged students. Several times during the film, they express contradictory sentiments about whether to persist with or give up on students, sometimes in the same breath, as when, near the end, the principal says both “There are no throwaway kids” and “We’re not going to be able to save every one of them” in the space of a few seconds. Certainly, there are administrative challenges around decisions about how far to go to try to keep students in school, and administrators sometimes need to make tough calls about which students the school can devote resources to (as SHS does with one student profiled in the film who had moved out of its catchment area). However, schools should be cautious about even saying that some students might not make it. Students need a school climate in which they hear and feel that the school wants them there and wants to help them be successful.

SHS staff actions also show that they lack a consistent approach to these students. The same administrator who seemed to epitomize compassion—the one who had a student living at her house, and who would pick up truant students and bring them to school—also would berate those same students if they “let her down.” In one particularly unfortunate scene, she chews a student out for being “rude” and “disrespectful” and lays into him with a litany of the actions she has taken on his behalf. Guilt and blame may result in compliance, but not engagement. This administrator would have been better off taking that time to have a calm conversation with the student, using cognitive problem-solving to discuss the situation, help him take responsibility for his actions, and identify better ways to handle the stressors he faces.

How Check & Connect Could Help

Often, when we work with a school or organization starting to implement Check & Connect, we hear comments like, “But we’re already [tracking student attendance, making home visits, what have you].” Likewise, SHS is already doing many things with and for disengaged youth that C&C calls for, including using data, providing personalized interventions, and acting as caring adults. What C&C provides—and what SHS lacks—is a coherent approach to such efforts, grounded in a systematic, instrumental mentoring relationship which includes persistence-plus (persisting with students despite setbacks), focusing on student strengths, paying attention to the student/environment fit, engaging parents, and building student capacity to solve their own problems. The goal of the C&C mentoring relationship is re-engaging the student at school and with learning. While SHS staff may have wanted to proactively mentor students toward positive outcomes, in practice they were reactive, just trying to solve problems as they arose.

Check & Connect also provides a systematic and objective way for the school and the student to have a shared understanding of the student’s current levels of engagement, so that they can use that information to move forward. This would also be welcome at SHS. Instead, in one scene, a student was asked how many days of school she had missed that week. She “didn’t know,” and no amount of questioning caused her to “remember.” The use of a C&C Monitoring Form would have rendered that unpleasant exchange completely unnecessary and allowed the student and her mentor to focus instead on how to improve her poor attendance. Instead, the student came away from the exchange feeling accused, and no progress was made on an undefined problem.

Check & Connect defines school completion as graduation with the academic and social skills to participate in postsecondary education/work and the adult world. We believe that, in order to graduate with these skills, students need to not only attend school, but engage in school and invest in their futures. We know that some schools are taking relationship-based, consistent, persistent, strengths-based, capacity-building approaches to student engagement and retention for students who need intensive supports. We wish that SHS was one of them, so that the country could have seen what such an approach to dropout prevention looks like.


About the Authors: This post was co-authored by Sharon Mule’ and Chris Opsal, project coordinators at the Institute on Community Integration and members of the Check & Connect team.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

5 thoughts on “Toward Engagement Nation: A Review of PBS’ Dropout Nation

  1. Is it really fair to evaluate a school’s approach to student engagement based on a television program – which, while obviously striving to be fair and accurate, must necessarily simplify, streamline, and condense the experiences of hundreds of teachers and students over 190 school days to a mere 113 minutes of tv?

  2. You (or someone else with the same name) was the Writer and Producer of Dropout Nation. We at Check & Connect thank you for your contribution to the national conversation on the need for dropout prevention! Of course, our knowledge of SHS’s approach to student engagement was incomplete, as it was based only on what your program showed us. As someone who spent a lot of time at SHS, do you think your program is an accurate reflection of SHS and their approach to engagement? Do you think our impressions are accurate? If not, what would you have us know about SHS and their approach to student engagement that didn’t make the final cut?

  3. That’s me! Thanks for the kids words – and sorry I didn’t see your post sooner. Anyway, I’m not enough of an authority to really answer. My point is more that our objective was to show the challenges facing one well-intentioned school as they try to turn around a dropout factory, and to do so through the eyes of a handful of students and teachers as they struggled to get through the year. So while we strove to be as thorough, balanced and accurate as possible, there are enormous limitations when you condense a year in the life of a large high school to under two hours. I would hate for SHS’s approach to *anything* to be evaluated solely on the basis of what someone not affiliated with SHS (me) decided, with no input from them, to include or omit from a documentary.

    The one thing I would hope people would take away from Dropout Nation is that real life and real people are exceptionally complicated. The administrator at the center of the story did scream at a kid for being disrespectful and rude. She also picks him up and drives him to school most days. And the kid is, indeed, disrespectful and rude. He also says he really wants to graduate. And also has a tendency to roll into school after 1pm unless shuttled there by the teacher, who meanwhile has another student living with her, who had a great deal of talent and wants to graduate, but who also can’t be bothered to meet them halfway on things like attendance, etc etc etc. And there are 1290 kids there who we didn’t even film with.

    As part of the Apollo 20 program, SHS probably has a more organized, directed approach to student engagement than many schools in HISD, and yet every day seemed like it brought a series of spontaneous crises that had to be dealt with in real time. Are there things they could do better? I’m sure of it. But as a filmmaker, rather than an expert in education, I’d be reluctant to even suggest what those things might be. As the principal said to us, keeping kids engaged in school isn’t terribly complicated on paper, but it’s just extraordinarily hard work. My goal was to capture that effort and present it to an audience that rarely gets to see that sort of thing up close. I can say unequivocally that what they’re doing is an improvement over the not-so-benign neglect of years past, but I can’t evaluate what exactly they could or should be doing differently.

    – FK

  4. Pingback: Dropout Nation | junterriadavisprovertyinschools

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