Closing Early Education Gaps for At-Risk Students: Dropout Prevention Programs at Every Level

By DeNisco, Alison | District Administration, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Closing Early Education Gaps for At-Risk Students: Dropout Prevention Programs at Every Level


DeNisco, Alison, District Administration


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Students who are identified early as at-risk and get support like extra reading have a better chance at graduating high school. But many students are unable to access early education opportunities and, research says, fewer than half of poor children are ready for school at age 5.

"People don't often think about preschool as [an element of] dropout prevention," says Marty Duckenfield, spokesperson for the National Dropout Prevention Center. "They think of the surly high school kid with behavior problems--but it goes back to other issues, and one is early childhood education."

Providing early education for children from low-income families leads to less incarceration and high graduation rates, generating $4 to $11 in benefits over a child's lifetime for every dollar spent, according to a cost-benefit analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health. At-risk students are defined as those who are held back a grade, miss class, behave badly, who live among poverty and violence, or come from households that collect food stamps and where the parents are unemployed or don't have a high school diploma. Another risk factor is the mother's age: if she was 19 or younger when the student was born.

And at-risk students benefit from Head Start programs, even though the impacts for other groups fade by the end of grade three. Students from "high-risk households" had "strikingly sustained" or lasting cognitive benefits from preK through grade 3, and performed better on assessments at the end of third grade, compared to children from lower- or moderate-risk households, for whom the program had no impact on assessments.

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"It's rare when we have enough quality research that we can use the words 'proven practice,' but the one area we do know will absolutely positively influence children who live in poverty is a high-quality preschool experience," says Kathleen Budge, an education professor at Boise State University and co-author of the book, "Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools."

But fewer than 33 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality early education, according to the White House, and six states (Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania) do not require districts to offer kindergarten. With the U.S. ranked 28'h out of 38 countries for 4-year-olds enrolled in early education, the nation's district leaders are filling the gaps and bringing students from diverse educational backgrounds to the same level.

Reading Recovery

Children in poverty often come to school with a lower level of language development than their middle-class peers, says Budge. For example, by age 3, children from professional families have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, compared to 749 words for those in working-class families, and only 525 for children whose families are on welfare, according to a 1995 study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

One such intervention is Reading Recovery, a nationwide early intervention program focused on helping first graders struggling with literacy to read and write at grade level. Founded 26 years ago, the program has served over 2 million children, with 80 percent of students reaching grade level in reading by the end of the program, says Mary Anne Doyle. She is the department head of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, and the director of Connecticut's Reading Recovery program.

Teachers take a year-long graduate-level course to teach the program, and read with students one-on-one for 30 minutes a day for up to 20 weeks--or as long as it takes to get the student up to grade level. "What's most important to us is to intervene before they fail, and help make up for whatever they've missed in their first five years of life for whatever reason," Doyle says.

The program is difficult for many districts to implement because it takes teachers a year to learn and requires two and a half hours a day with each student, Doyle says. …

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