New Jersey Considers Dropout Reduction Program

Published January 1, 2009

At 2 percent in 2007, New Jersey has one of the nation’s lowest high school dropout rates, according to the state’s education department.

Nevertheless, the state is undertaking a new effort to reduce its high school dropout rate further through the New Jersey High School Graduation Campaign.

A steering committee of educators and legislators met regularly with more than 1,000 school officials, stakeholders, and members of the public from 2006 to 2008 to brainstorm about methods to raise graduation rates among the state’s students.

“The Steering Committee has a clear vision for public education in New Jersey, which is to educate all students to prepare them to lead productive, fulfilling lives,” said Lucille Davy, New Jersey commissioner of education, in an October press release announcing the new plan.

Significant Changes

The recommendations include improving teacher preparation programs and establishing personalized learning plans and new testing standards for students. These will include a Language Arts Proficiency Assessment and requiring all students to take Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, biology, chemistry, and economics to graduate.

The recommendations also include redesigning high schools as “learning communities” that focus on personalized teaching and provide educators with increased technical assistance.

The plan calls for a P-16 Council—covering all students from preschool through college—to “ensure a seamless and aligned system of public education,” according to the press release. The council would consist of leaders from the education, business, and government communities as well as parents.

National Initiative

New Jersey’s plan is part of a national initiative by America’s Promise Alliance, a Washington, DC-based organization founded by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“America’s Promise Alliance is approaching the dropout crisis in a way that hasn’t been done before,” said Colleen Wilber, the group’s senior director of media relations. “In previous efforts to reduce the nation’s dropout rate, the focus has been solely on schools or the parents. Although those are critical elements, we believe that in order to truly get a handle on the dropout crisis in this country, the entire community must wrap its arms around this issue and get involved to help solve it.

“That is why the centerpiece of our Dropout Prevention Campaign is engaging all the sectors of a community—from schools, parents, and the young people themselves to the business and faith sectors and nonprofit organizations,” Wilber continued. “We believe the business community has just as important a role to play as schools.”

Early Prevention

But some experts say mentoring programs are not an effective way to address the issue. Instead, they say, dropout prevention begins in elementary and middle school.

“When students realize as freshmen that they can’t do ninth-grade work, are barely literate, and can’t do basic math, let alone advanced math, they quickly lose interest in school” said Derrell Bradford, deputy director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a Newark-based school choice advocacy group. “That’s the real issue. Dropout reforms like mentoring … do not address the real problem of students being overwhelmingly underequipped to do the work in high school.

“Before they get to high school, we tell them it’s fine that they do not know certain things and pass them along to the next grade, but when they get to high school, we say, ‘OK, now it’s serious, we expect you to get good grades,'” Bradford continued.

Strengthening Connections

Officials at America’s Promise Alliance say that’s true. Wilber said the group is targeting middle schoolers to help stave off the desire to drop out once they reach high school.

“We have an initiative called ‘Ready for the Real World’ that is targeting that vulnerable middle-school population,” Wilber said, citing a study released in March 2006 by Civic Enterprises, a Washington DC-based organization that spearheads innovative public policies. It documented many dropouts were achieving passing grades when they left school.

“When asked why they dropped out, a good number of them said they felt disconnected to the curriculum and could not understand the connection [between] what they were learning inside the classroom [and] what was happening in the real world,” Wilber said.

“This is where our initiative comes in. We are working with business leaders and our Alliance partners to expand curriculum-based ‘service-learning’ opportunities for youth in those critical middle-school years,” Wilber continued. “If young people can make that connection through a service learning or career exploration activity, they are more likely to stay in school, succeed, and become more engaged on a volunteer level in their communities.”

Harder Work

But Bradford remains unconvinced New Jersey’s plan will succeed, especially if the initiative is to make high school curricula more rigorous.

“I’m not optimistic about any of the solutions they have or will come up with to reduce the dropout rate or make the curriculum more rigorous,” said Bradford. “I’m all for raising standards. It’s actually crucial that we do so in this state, but they don’t guarantee that a student is getting a better teacher or learning environment.

“I am enormously frustrated by this discussion because the people in our education institutions think that graduation is more important than education,” Bradford added.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Recommendations to Transform New Jersey High School Education Unveiled,” New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee, October 2008:

“The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives for High School Dropouts,” Civic Enterprises, March 2006: