Public Release: 

Study finds elementary school student support leads to lower high school dropout

American Educational Research Association

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 3, 2018 - Elementary-school students who participated in a comprehensive support intervention in the Boston public school district had about half the odds of dropping out of high school as students not in the intervention, according to a new study published online today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Educational Research Association.

The 894 students who participated in the intervention from kindergarten through fifth grade had a 9.2 percent dropout rate in high school, compared to 16.6 percent for the 10,200 non-intervention students. For their study, a team of Boston College researchers examined the impact of City Connects, a schoolwide systemic student support program that is based at the college.

Developed through a collaboration between the college, Boston Public Schools, and community agencies, City Connects is designed to make student support operations, which address students' academic and nonacademic barriers to learning, more comprehensive and efficient.

The students in the study entered kindergarten in 2000-01 through 2004-05 and were followed through 2013-14. Six of the district's approximately 125 elementary schools participated in City Connects during this period. These students were compared to students who were enrolled in the school district during the same time as the City Connects students but never attended an intervention school.

The school district recommended schools for participation in the program based in part on where it felt the intervention was most needed. The researchers note that the six participating schools had significantly lower academic achievement than the comparison schools before program implementation.

"Our findings suggest that individually tailored and coordinated student support interventions during elementary school can lead to lasting and meaningful effects," said study coauthor Mary E. Walsh, Kearns Professor of Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at Boston College, who also serves as executive director of City Connects.

"There are many pathways to school dropout. A comprehensive intervention in elementary school that addresses a wide range of out-of-school factors can disrupt those pathways, supporting strengths and building resilience," Walsh said.

"Despite the promise of this type of comprehensive approach to intervention, efforts targeting dropout often are highly focused, directing attention to one or two specific needs--usually academic and behavioral--instead of to a wide range of both strengths and needs," said Walsh. "In addition, such efforts tend to be aimed solely at high school students, and therefore, in some cases, may come too late."

According to the researchers, students fail to complete high school for complex reasons that often develop long before they reach high school. Their process of academic disengagement is influenced by a mix of in- and out-of-school factors, including academic, socio-emotional, family-related, and societal.

Prior research finds that many factors affect dropout--for example, poor academic performance in elementary, middle, and high school; a low sense of belonging in school; negative classroom behavior; and little involvement in extracurricular activities. Graduation rates are also significantly lower for black and Hispanic youth, for male students, and for students from low-income families, single-parent households, and families where parents had low educational achievement.

Across all Boston public schools serving students in kindergarten through fifth grade during the time of the study, more than 90 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and approximately 90 percent were minority students, the researchers report.

In each participating school, a full-time coordinator, who is a master's degree-level licensed school counselor or social worker, meets with every classroom teacher and other school staff to review every student, every year. The coordinator and staff discuss each child's strengths and needs in academics, social/emotional/behavioral development, health, and family support. Since not every factor that may influence dropout presents itself as a "red flag," this approach allows the less obvious factors to be identified and addressed early.

"Some students are quiet dropouts, meaning they may not be identified as being at-risk in usual school settings," said Walsh.

With a secure, proprietary database, each student in the intervention is linked to a tailored set of services and enrichment opportunities in the school or community that address their unique strengths and needs, with the school coordinator following up throughout the year. The database provides reminders, prompts, and automated reports that are designed to make the coordinator's work more efficient and allow reporting to principals and others in the school.

"Dropping out of high school has serious individual and social consequences, including hurting employment possibilities, lifetime earnings, and physical health," said Walsh. "During the period we looked at, we estimate that the program led to approximately 375 fewer dropouts over the course of high school."

"Given that each new high school graduate has been estimated to yield societal benefits of $260,300 over a dropout, staying in high school rather than dropping out is highly meaningful, with an estimated $97.6 million return to society from the groups examined in this study," Walsh said.

Over the past 20 years, City Connects has been implemented in over 100 elementary and K-8 schools across Boston, Springfield, and Salem, Mass.; New York City, N.Y.; Dayton and Springfield, Ohio; Hartford, Conn.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Indianapolis, Ind. City Connects is supported through a range of funding sources, including public school districts, state funding, and numerous foundations.

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About AERA

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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