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Dropouts are down in Lynn Public Schools, but are high among ELL students

LYNN — Dropout rates are down in Lynn Public Schools, but remain high among English Language Learner (ELL) students.

Last year, 4.5 percent, or 199 of the district’s 4,418 high school students dropped out, a slight drop from the 2016-17 school year when 5.1 percent, or 221 students dropped out. The rate represents a three-year low, according to data shared by Deputy Superintendent Debra Ruggiero at last Thursday’s School Committee meeting.

To prevent dropouts, school officials are exploring support and intervention strategies to keep kids in school. Key to preventing dropouts is establishing a positive relationship with the student, Ruggiero said.

“(We want to) help students understand it’s important to be in school,” Ruggiero said. “We don’t want you to drop out.”

What School Committee member Michael Satterwhite called “a big deal” is the zero percent dropout rate at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute for the second year in a row.

Despite the overall decrease, school officials remain concerned about the high dropout rate among ELL students. More than half of the students who dropped out last year, or 56 percent, were ELLs, which totals 112 students, according to Ruggiero.

Overall, the ELL group has a 12.4 percent dropout rate, more than double the 2009 rate of 5.5 percent, according to figures from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

The ELL group includes students who come to the United States from other countries, who may have experienced trauma in their native countries or in their journey to America. Often, when those students enter the district, they are placed in the ninth grade at age 17 or older, with a sixth grade education.

Those overage ELL students may be forced to put school on the backburner to attend to their hierarchy of needs, which includes the need to work to support themselves and their families, according to Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler.

“Those students when they set foot on our campus are at risk of dropping out and those numbers reflect that,” Tutwiler said. “(An) important step would be around how do we find ways to make school possible for those students who are struggling with that hierarchy of need.”

Lowering the dropout rate for ELLs and boosting the performance of those students has been an initiative of Tutwiler’s since he took over as superintendent last summer. School administrative officials are exploring an overhaul of the district’s approach to meeting the needs of ELL students.

The district needs to dig deeper into ELL students and what their needs are. There’s a lot of work left to do, but the district has begun the process of adjusting ELL classrooms at the secondary level so students are getting the language proficiency development they need, Ruggiero said.

“Our high schools are not just sitting back and letting it happen,” Ruggiero said. “They are working hard at preventing them from leaving.”

Hispanics are the subgroup most at risk of dropping out, with 168 students, or 84 percent of the district’s dropouts. School Committee member John Ford said that number may be reflective of the district’s majority Hispanic population. Sixty-three percent of the Lynn Public Schools student population is Hispanic. The ELL dropout rate, which Ford called “staggering and alarming” is tucked into that Hispanic subgroup.

School Committee member Brian Castellanos said the dropout rate among ELL students made him “kind of sick.” With no high school diploma, job prospects become difficult.

There’s a short window of time to intervene with those students, Castellanos said, in terms of engaging a 17-year-old from another country who enters school as a freshman, and getting across to them that four years of high school and a diploma is their “ticket to success.” Those kids are often parentified, and if undocumented, they lose out on opportunities such as financial aid for college, he said.

“What happens to them (may become) even more sickening,” Castellanos said, referring to students of disadvantaged backgrounds. “They end up in the school-to-prison pipeline. This is something that’s a crisis.”

There were some positive figures for special education students, which saw a decrease in dropouts from last year. ELL and special education students are the two weakest subgroups in the district, according to Ruggiero.

Last year, special education students accounted for 11.1 percent of the district’s total dropouts, a 4.3 percent decline from the 2016-17 school year and a steep decline from 2013-14 when the group accounted for 32.9 percent of the district’s dropouts, according to a presentation by Ruggiero.

Ruggiero said the improvement is reflective of an understanding of inclusion and how to support those students.

Dropout prevention is a four-pronged approach, which includes education programs for students and professional development for staff, monitoring and identifying at-risk students, support and intervention programs, and alternative options to keep students engaged, such as Lynn Vocational Technical Institute and Fecteau-Leary School, according to Ruggiero.

Ruggerio said administrative officials are actively investigating and researching a youth harbor program, which would provide a case manager at each high school and would focus on the 18-22 age group, which consists of students who are too old for support from the Department of Children and Families, but too young for adult services.

Those students often fall into limbo at school, and the harbor program would help them financially to stay in school, she said.

Officials are also looking into a student ambassador program, where former ELL students would serve as mentors to newcomers to help them through their school experience until graduation, Ruggiero said.

“The philosophy needs to be that all students can learn — we just need to modify and differentiate for them,” Ruggiero said.

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