• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2012 • 

The latest statistics in the United States show that around 25 percent of students drop out of schools (Duncan, 2010). IDRA’s longitudinal attrition study (Johnson, 2012) found that Texas school attrition was 26 percent in 2011-12 (see article on Page 1), which means that we are losing 12 students per hour. The racial and ethnic gaps are dramatically higher than 27 years ago. This is economically, politically, socially and morally unacceptable. It is in the best interest of our country to redesign our educational approach to be more inclusive and globally competitive.

One step in the right direction is to ensure that all schools are staffed by quality teachers and that no school is victim to an inequitable school finance system. Students must be valued and engaged. The daily planning and use of effective instructional strategies that focus on keeping students connected in learning with proper and equitable resources is vital. Obviously this requires quality teacher preparation programs and intentional, effective professional development that supports exceptional teaching and learning outcomes. Financial resources need to pro-actively focus on dropout prevention programs that prepare students academically, socially and emotionally to be ready to enter and complete a college education.

Students enter schools full of dreams and energized to do well, but along the way many encounter barriers to having success in school. And many leave without finishing their secondary school education. Unfortunately, for many students dropping out of school is a result of the frustration of having to go through numerous academic struggles, taking wrong turns in their school career path, and lacking support for their family to engage with the school.

Bridgeland, Dilulio & Morison (2006) indicate that reasons students drop out of school include being bored in the classroom, feeling a disconnect between their life and the academic program they have been exposed to, and simply not being challenged by educators who have low expectations of them. Many times, there are feelings of disconnect between the students and their peers, students and teachers, and staff and administrators. Students feel pushed out the door as if nobody cares. Schools and their systems find themselves without human capital and resources to meet the complex academic, emotional and economic realities of vulnerable youth, particularly those in urban and poverty areas.

At all levels policymakers, educators, non-profit organizations, businesses, community members and their organizations must come together to catalyze efforts to transform and redesign our educational system. All of IDRA’s work, as well as research by Avilés & Garza (2010) affirm that, most importantly, we must stop blaming the students and focus our energies on creating the means for students to demonstrate their potential and validate how they can be successful. We must be passionate and recognize that all students, given the right contexts, will succeed as they face the barriers that come their way.

During the start of this 21st century, specific initiatives have focused on investing in preschool programs, engaging parents as partners in education, building positive and caring relationships, monitoring the progress of the students early on, and developing effective intervention plans addressing their needs. These are critical elements, as is providing quality support systems that convert weaknesses into strengths, high expectations,  a rigorous curriculum that is relevant and personalized classroom environments. A research study conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (2010) found that the above areas must be addressed to ensure all students succeed.

Some initiatives are addressing these challenges to reduce the number of dropouts and eliminate the achievement gap through the immersion of students in a college preparation program where they graduate from high school ready for college as they simultaneously accrue college credit hours and, in some cases, secure an associate’s degree. These and other successful initiatives include Early College High Schools, STEM Academies, the PUENTE program, the AVID program, IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, along with many others as described by the Educational Policy Institute (EPI) and the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC).

These programs focus on students having quality teachers, counselors, staff and administrators, and parent and community leaders who are passionate and determined to make these programs successful. In collaboration, these programs have developed practical insights and proven solutions that systemically can be scaled up based on evidence, data analysis and evaluation across secondary schools and institutions of higher education.

Without a doubt, institutionalization and sustainability are crucial issues that need attention. Researchers have shown that innovative educational programs have the greatest impact when significant portions of the school culture are mobilized in conjunction with all stakeholders.

Researchers Watt, Huerta & Cossio (2004) explored the actions of school leaders in the implementation of the AVID program in secondary schools. Their findings reveal that school leaders in charge of an initiative must be knowledgeable and ensure that outcomes are successful. And they found that the planning process was one of the most important factors determining a program’s success.

Every child is entitled to a quality education. IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework™, developed by IDRA President Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, is a guide for bringing about positive outcomes in school systems (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010). It is based on the premise that 100 percent graduation and preparation for success should be our goals for all children and the measure of our success. And while it is critical that schools tend to students who are at immediate risk of dropping out, discrete dropout prevention programs cannot change the systems that give rise to risk in the first place. Through the collaborative efforts of engaged citizens and all school stakeholders, we can turn around schools to work for all students by preparing and empowering them for life.

Without effective reform structures, equitable finances, program implementation structures, and passionate and dedicated leadership, we resign ourselves to lip service; to prevent high dropout rates and close the achievement gap, well-planned actions must be in place. Community leaders in the educational and political arenas must have a change of heart. Let’s remember that students are not failing schools, but schools are failing students. We must strengthen education and its finance system and increase the holding power of schools and higher education institutions that validate students’ assets. Systemic education reform must build culturally diverse excellent  schools and higher education institutions.


Avilés, N., & E. Garza. “Early College High School: A Model of Success for High School Redesign,” International Journal of Urban Educational Leadership (2010) 4(2), pp. 1-13.

Bridgeland, J.M., & J.J. Dilulio, K.B. Morison. The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts (Washington, D.C.: Civic Enterprises, 2006).

Center for Community College Student Engagement. The Heart of Student Success: Teaching, Learning and College Completion, 2010 CCSE Findings (Austin, Texas: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program, 2010).

Duncan, A. “Education Secretary Arne Duncan says one-quarter of U.S. students drop out,” Tampa Bay Times (August 30, 2010).

Johnson, R.L. Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2011-12: Attrition Rate Decline Appears Promising – Though High Schools are Still Losing One in Four Students (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2012).

Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C.L. (eds). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Watt, K., & J. Huerta, G. Cossio. “Leadership and AVID Implementation Levels in Four South Texas Border Schools,” Catalyst for Change (2004) 33(2), pp. 10-14.

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]