Dropout. For many, the word conjures up an image of a lost cause, a student gone from the school system for good. But a recent study challenges that notion and adds important new information to the national conversation about reengaging disconnected students.

“We identified a subgroup of students who drop out but have the tenacity to come back — sometimes second and third times,” says BethAnn Berliner, a senior researcher at WestEd and co-author of Characteristics and Education Outcomes of Utah High School Dropouts Who Re-enrolled, produced by WestEd’s Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West. “These ‘re-enrollees’ are determined and hungry for a diploma.”

While there is a sizeable body of research on the prevalence, causes, and prevention of high school dropout, relatively little is known about students who drop out and later re-enroll. With no national numbers or descriptions of re-enrollees currently available, this study — the first statewide analysis of re-enrollees — begins to paint a much-needed picture of who these students are and which of them struggle the most.

“To help re-enrollees graduate, we need to know more about them,” says Berliner. “This study gives us a baseline of information from one state to better understand the demographic and academic characteristics of these students.”

And given the bleak outcomes for high school dropouts, being able to better understand and support re-enrollees is as critical as ever. Adults without a diploma are more likely than high school graduates to experience unemployment and poverty, depend on public assistance, have health problems, and be incarcerated.1, 2

Counting re-enrollees in Utah

WestEd researchers looked at data on nearly 42,000 Utah public high school students expected to graduate in 2011 and found that about one in five dropped out sometime during their high school years.

Dropout risks. Dropout rates varied considerably based on student demographic characteristics. Racial/ethnic minority students and English learner students had the highest dropout rates — more than twice those of White students and English-proficient students.

Other students with relatively high dropout rates included those starting high school at age 15 or older (28 percent), those eligible for the federal school lunch program (27 percent), and those with disabilities (24 percent).

Rate of re-enrollment. Of the students who dropped out during high school, about one in five returned, but those who dropped out later in high school were less likely to re-enroll.

Although there was much less variation between groups when it came to re-enrollment, some differences did emerge. For example, re-enrollment rates for low-income students and students with disabilities were above the state average. For students with disabilities, that higher re-enrollment rate may be at least partially explained by their access to individualized education programs (IEPs). “Students with IEPs are likely being case managed in ways that other student groups are not,” says Berliner.

In contrast, Black students and English learner students had re-enrollment rates below the state average, putting them at particular risk of not graduating. “These data are worrying,” says Vanessa X. Barrat, a senior research associate with REL West and co-author of the study. “For English language learners, having the highest dropout rate of all the student groups along with a re-enrollment rate below the state average means they’re more likely to leave school permanently.”

The data, according to Barrat, underscore the need for improved dropout prevention; a better understanding of the road blocks to re-enrollment; and targeted reengagement efforts, especially with the most struggling groups of students.

Reengaging students

Among students in the study who dropped out and later re-enrolled in high school, about one in four graduated with their class on time in 2011. With two more years, the graduation rate of the re-enrollees went up to 30 percent.

“The glass-half-full perspective is that, despite the hurdles to catch up on credits and successfully reengage in school, almost one third of re-enrollees attained diplomas within six years,” says Berliner. “The glass-half-empty? About 70 percent of the re-enrollees did not graduate. This means we need to do better at supporting these students.”

“We learned early on that it wasn’t enough to just re-enroll students.”

In many cases, the reengagement strategies for re-enrollees are not targeted and purposeful enough, says Barrat. “Students who drop out often do so because they’re behind academically — and when they re-enroll, they’re even further behind. Too often, the reengagement approach is to simply tell students to re-enroll, go to classes, and do their homework.” She adds that when a re-enrollee shows up in class, the educator may not even know that the student missed a significant amount of school the previous year and thus would not be thinking about differentiating instruction for that learner or referring the student to appropriate supports to catch up on missed content.

To give re-enrollees a better chance at academic success, Berliner says that it’s important to learn which courses students were failing, why they became deficient in credits, and how to accelerate their content and credit accrual upon their return. Anecdotally, gateway math is often a stumbling block, and “you can’t complete three years of math if you don’t pass freshman-year math,” says Berliner. A whole host of other factors may contribute to students’ credit and content deficiencies — from family instability and poverty to persistent learning struggles and lack of effective academic supports.

Lessons from Washoe County. Concerned with low graduation rates, Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Nevada secured a federal grant in 2010 to implement a high school graduation initiative focused on supporting students at risk of dropping out and dropouts who return to school. The funds went toward expanding interventions within the district’s multi-tiered system of supports, which included securing reengagement specialists and opening reengagement centers throughout the district to support re-enrollees. “We learned early on that it wasn’t enough to just re-enroll students,” says Jennifer Harris, a program evaluator for WCSD.

With a focus on chronic absenteeism, the district also created an early warning system to help identify students at risk of disengagement and to target resources and outreach accordingly, ideally before students dropped out. The early warning system tracks multiple indicators — including academic performance, credit deficiency, transiency, suspensions, and attendance — to generate a student risk index that can be accessed by WCSD staff.

Reasons for dropping out are incredibly varied, says Harris. That’s why it’s critical for teachers and intervention and reengagement specialists to personally investigate and provide individualized interventions. “The number-one thing we’ve learned is the importance of talking directly to students about why they dropped out and what’s needed to keep them persisting when they return,” says Harris.

Conversations like these have helped enlighten schools in the district about the importance of mental health support for students, for example. According to Harris, by being asked for and offering their input, students have also become more engaged and socially competent. To facilitate that sort of focused student input, WCSD collaborated with REL West to develop a student engagement toolkit that elicits student perspectives on pressing issues such as dropout and re-enrollment (read When Students Speak and Educators Listen, in R&D Alert volume 16.1, to learn more).

Thus far, WCSD’s efforts seem to be paying off — since 2010, the district’s four-year graduation rates have gone up and its dropout rates have gone down. As the work progresses, the district’s reengagement specialists continue to personally support students after re-enrollment to ensure that they don’t fall through the cracks. And to help sustain the work, the reengagement specialists coach schools about the needs of students and how to carve out time to meet with them individually. The district is also building partnerships with adult education programs to better support students who drop out but later want to return to school.

While significant resources are needed to do the kind of intensive work taking place in WCSD, Barrat notes that other districts can learn from WCSD and implement strategic approaches of their own, such as

  • Increase district capacity to offer credit-recovery options at both traditional and continuation high schools.
  • Enroll credit-deficient students early in rapid recovery interventions.
  • Provide case management for individual re-enrollees to coordinate academic and other supports to get back on track to graduate.
  • Include past dropout events and gaps in enrollment in district early warning systems and other data systems used to evaluate students’ needs.

Now that re-enrollees are beginning to show up on the radar, Berliner says that new funding streams are being earmarked for support and the conversation is moving toward what we need to do to support these students rather than blame them. “Dropping out does not have to be a permanent outcome,” says Berliner. “Re-enrollment gives educators a second chance to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable students.”

1 Orfield, G. (2004). Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2 Rumberger, R. (2011). Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.