The jargon of dropout prevention continues to evolve. “Personalized education” has been a central set of buzz words for the last decade or so. Google "personalized education" and you quickly find that the only "person" in personalized is a computer. A computer can help, but will never replace, a teacher's personal relationship with a student.
A major reason for the recent gains in education have been the stimulus grants that allowed teachers to be hired and maintained in 2009/2010 and into 2011. More personal relationships were possible, but that money is now gone. The resulting trauma is being seen nationwide as teachers are loosing their jobs. The “relationship side” of education is suffering more this year, and will suffer more next year, especially here in Texas. The progress we have been seeing will be challenged, if not eliminated.
Some will try to insert “personalized education,” a growing profit center for a few investors, as the solution. But it will not work without teachers, and they must be teachers with personal long term relationships with the students involved. Many of the elements of “personalized education” can certainly help a teacher, but they will never replace the teacher, that human side of teaching.
We must reclaim the human relationship side of education.
In our small farming community history, everyone went to a small local grade school. Everyone knew everyone’s family. Family history was part of the atmosphere. Goals for the future were part of the package. As the value of a high school education grew, graduation rates grew until now when almost everyone graduates in such rural communities.
But then most of those small town and rural residents moved to the big city. The connection of everyone knowing everybody was lost. History was lost. Goals for the future were lost. Working more than one job to make ends meet became too normal. The future focus was lost. Everyone knowing the teachers was lost. The number of dropouts grew. Many parents also came from cultures where graduation was rare. Urban graduation rates fell to well below 50%.
We must reclaim that focus on history, on goals, and on personal relationships that existed in those mythic "farming communities." Something “personalized” will not work without something actually personal, without a teacher.
The artificial forced transfer into a separate middle school must be ended. K-8 schools should dominate. The seventh and eighth graders should be the seniors on campus in the roles of mentors for the younger students. They should be around teachers who have known them most of their lives. It makes a difference.
A new tradition of parents writing letters to their child by the 5th or 6th grade needs to begin. They should write about their dreams for their child. Such letters need to become normal. Students would bring them to Language Arts class and spend a week writing a letter to themselves in responsee to that first letter. They would write about their own goals and dreams. Each set of letters should go into a single self-addressed envelope and then into the School Archive, the 500-pound vault bolted to the floor in the lobby and under spotlights.
How often the letters are pulled, re-read, and re-written will be decided by the school. The goal is to keep students focused onto their own futures. The final letters at the end of the 8th grade would be a set, letters from parents and one letter by the student to themselves, all focusing 10-years into the future. That set of letters will stay in the vault for a decade until the class 10-year reunion.
At the 10-year class reunion the now often priceless letters are returned to the former students. These alumni are then are asked to speak with current students at the school. They are asked to plan to give a "Recommendations for Success Talk." They should be ready to answer questions when they are 23 or 24 and returning to this reunion. They should expect questions such as “What would you do differently if you were 13 again?”
The future focus is the goal. The mentoring is the goal.
In high school this process starts again with letters in the 9th grade and again at the end of 12th grade with the same 10-year focus, and another 10-year class reunion to plan for.
The goal is to focus on personal relationships, and a history, including teachers and classmates, that make up the real world.
Never underestimate the power of a student with focus, and plans for the future. Sunset High School has already doubled their 33% graduation rate from the Class of 2006, and they will be above a 70% graduation rate by the Class of 2014, probably the highest graduation rate of any non-magnet high school in all of Dallas ISD. They used to have almost the lowest such rate 15 years ago.