LYNN — Efforts to keep students in school are starting to bear fruit, according to Deputy Superintendent of Schools Debra Ruggiero, who said the district’s dropout rate is the lowest it has ever been, since this data started to be recorded.
Ruggiero, who presented at the School Committee meeting on Thursday, said the dropout rate at Lynn Public Schools was 3.1 percent for the 2020-21 school year, which represented a 0.7 percent decline from the 2019-2020 school year. Last year’s dropout rate was a 1.6 percent decrease from the 2018-19 school year, when it was 4.7 percent, she said.
In related data, Ruggiero said the district’s graduation rate, which remained relatively stagnant between 2014-19, has made significant gains over the past two years. In 2021, the district’s graduation rate was 84.1 percent.
“The dropping-out-without-graduating rate fell to its lowest rate in eight years in 2021,” said Ruggiero. “In 2021, the overall Lynn Public Schools graduation rate for each high school, and combined, was either its best or close to it over the past six years.”
Ruggiero said dropout rates are also on the decline among the district’s racial and ethnic subgroups, with a near-zero rate among the African-American/Black subgroup, However, she said the district has more work to do with its Hispanic population, which represents the ethnic subgroup most at risk of dropping out, at 4 percent.
Ruggiero said the district has started to implement strategies to try to reduce the Hispanic dropout rate, including restructuring English language learner (ELL) and English language development (ELD) classes, and providing more support for ELL students at the secondary level.
While the ELL graduation rate has continued to rise, with four consecutive years of increases, the dropout rate for these students also continues to increase, as more ELL students enroll in the district each year, Ruggiero said. According to district data, the dropout rate among these students for the 2020-21 school year was 71.6 percent, compared to a dropout rate of 18 percent among regular-education students.
Much of Ruggiero’s presentation was focused on the push-out and pull-out factors that contribute to dropout rates, and what the district is doing to address these, to keep students in school.
Push-out factors refer to situations or experiences within school environments that heighten students’ feelings of alienation and failure, such as a lack of relationships with their teachers, not enough supports for ELLs, suspension and expulsion, low grades, bullying and harassment, isolation, behavioral problems, lack of engagement, and an intolerant school environment, Ruggiero said.
Pull-out factors are external ones that distract a student from their schoolwork, such as adolescent pregnancy, economic struggles, and family responsibilities such as the need to work and care for siblings or parents, Ruggiero said.
“The research says dropping out is a process, not an event,” she said. “When we think about a dropout, it is a process of engagement that often begins in the early years of education. When we think about dropout rates and dropout prevention, our inclination is to think that this is a secondary issue, and that the interventions reside at the middle- and high-school level. The reality is the trajectory for dropping out of school begins in entrance, in pre-K and K, and is intimately connected to a student’s attendance.”
Ruggiero said the district works to provide support to keep students engaged at all education levels, starting with efforts to create a sense of belonging at the elementary level. By middle school, the strategy becomes more layered, with interventions directly aimed at preventing dropouts.
At the high-school level, Ruggiero said efforts are made to build relationships with students to prevent them from being pushed out, and providing mental-health support at a clinical level and through various programs. One such program highlighted, Youth Harbors, targets homeless, unaccompanied youth, which Ruggiero said was one of the groups most at risk of dropping out.
The Youth Harbors program works to provide homeless students with their basic needs, but also provides life-skills coaching, such as teaching them how to cook and manage their finances, Ruggiero said.
“That really is an incredible program we brought in a couple of years ago under our Title I program that services students who are homeless, but it looks to address their most basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, knowing that if we don’t address those needs for them, they won’t be able to come to school,” said Deputy Superintendent of Schools Kimberlee Powers.
Another key move being taken to keep students engaged and in school is reimagining the secondary-school model, which would provide a more flexible schedule for students who have to work to support their families. It would also aim to provide more engaging courses, rather than the standard English and history classes, Ruggiero said.
Powers also highlighted the district’s efforts to increase its clinical presence in schools. Because of the pandemic, she said schools are seeing students who are in crisis; social-emotional and mental-health needs are profound across the district, she said.
To address this, Powers said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Tutwiler has committed to placing 74 social workers throughout the district, which would provide larger schools like Lynn English with eight social workers and one clinical supervisor. This would be paid for through the district’s increase in state aid through the Student Opportunity Act, but would have to be approved in the fiscal year 2023 budget, she said.
“I’d be surprised if we’re not one of the top school districts in Massachusetts, in terms of clinical support in our schools,” said Powers.
School Committee member Brian Castellanos, who works with at-risk youth through his job as a social worker, said he was grateful for the work the district has done to increase its mental-health support.
He said this work is helping to establish a “trauma-to-wellness pipeline,” which will help to prevent at-risk students from falling into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“It’s a game-changer,” said Castellanos.