• By Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., and Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2007

Rosana RodriguezDr. Abelardo VillarrealSome call it an epidemic, others an educational dilemma, and others a national disgrace with significant economic, social and personal consequences for the future of this country. Students are not graduating from high school in shocking proportions (30 to 50 percent). The problem is the worst for our growing populations of minority and low-income students.

Many communities and policymakers continue to ignore this problem and operate as if it was transitory and will automatically resolve itself through existing school reform efforts. The fact is that policy and school reform efforts typically focus entirely on “overhauling” perceived student deficits and have not seriously delved into the contextual factors and their collective impact on student’ leaving school.

Such school reform efforts shortchange minority and low-income students who, since their enrollment in school, became the prey of inappropriate learning assessments, low expectations, inappropriate instruction and misguided parent involvement programs. This article provides some thoughts about present day conventions and assumptions and describes some solutions that defy these conventions.

Debunking the Myth: Student Deficit vs. School Deficit

Students who are most at risk of dropping out go through a gradual process of disengagement, isolationism and indifference. This leads to a loss of self efficacy, self esteem and resiliency. For these students, there is often a long history of academic underachievement, dysfunctional behaviors and eventual physical exiting from the school environment. This gradual process starts manifesting itself through behavioral, emotional and learning difficulties.

Early research of the 1980s by IDRA (1989) and more recent research by Battin-Pearson, et al., (2000) reveal the major manifestations expressed by students who are at risk of dropping out. These are: chronic cycle of tardiness and absence, failing classes, suspensions, transitions between schools, student disrespect toward self and others, isolationism, and disrespect for law and order. These tend to gradually accumulate creating a problem with serious implications to the individual student, the teacher, the school, the family and the community.

Unfortunately, existing policy and school programs typically do not address the problem of school dropouts from a structural or systemic perspective. Instead, they target students’ dysfunctional behaviors and low academic achievement as the key factors. They neglect school contextual factors that lead to student disengagement and isolation.

The two-pronged challenge for schools is to: (1) tend to the severe damage that has already impaired many of our youth; and (2) ensure that school practices that caused this damage for many of our youth immediately change so that more students and their families feel welcomed in school, experience academic success, and eventually graduate and go on to college.

As educators, we must take a step back, reflect and act in ways that defy conventions that contribute to a school lackadaisical attitude. Our attention must shift from student and parent blame to a shared school responsibility. We must adhere to a philosophy of shared responsibility ingrained in the term, school holding power.

School holding power is the capacity of a school to keep and graduate students who have reached a threshold where dropping out becomes a serious alternative, and the ability of the school to self-renew and change paradigms toward valuing all students and feeling responsible for the success of every student.

Building Strong School Holding Power

What can schools do? Many school leaders will need to undertake a serious endeavor to change their attitudes and low expectations of students and take greater responsibility for the success or failure of their students. By doing so, their schools will become successful by virtue of their strong school holding power.

Schools with a strong student holding power embody the following practices.

Provide High Self Efficacy

  • Promote skill-building, responsibility, supportive relationships and belonging throughout the school’s curriculum.
  • Implement special programs that promote skill-building, responsibility, supportive relationships and belonging to students who need additional help.
  • Acknowledge achievement.
  • Ensure students’ participation in extracurricular activities so that all students are supported and have multiple opportunities to excel.
  • Support extracurricular activities that build positive youth development and social skills to promote self worth.
  • Make special efforts to provide opportunities for students deemed at risk to being viewed instead as “at promise.”
  • Monitor students’ progress in self-esteem and self efficacy through observations and standardized measures.

Promote Strong Educator-Student Relationships

  • Promote school board support for programs that strengthen relationships and create school structures to personalize instruction.
  • Offer quality instructional programs that create opportunities for graduation and preparation for college and the workplace.
  • Use teacher “looping” practices (where students have the same teacher for multiple years) to ensure that continuity and relationship strengthening offer the potential for academic and social benefits.
  • Demonstrate strong and committed leadership that will not allow for any student to stay behind.
  • Ensure that all students have at least one caring adult in their school lives.
  • Teach a core set of social and emotional competencies (self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision-making).
  • Create a schoolwide environment in which everyone participates in setting rules and follows the same rules of conduct, recognizing that students do not feel connected in environments that are chaotic and where adults are punitive.
  • Support learning approaches, such as service-learning, cooperative learning and noncompetitive games that increase connectedness to school.
  • Implement early interventions and intensive interventions that are aimed at children who are having difficulty feeling connected. Samples of these interventions include the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program and the AVID program.
  • Promote a school climate that ensures school connectedness by creating “communities of learners,” including students, teachers, administrators and parents, that meet periodically to set goals, collaboratively develop projects and share accomplishments.

Provide for an Authentic, Relevant and Engaging Curriculum

  • Engage students cognitively, physically and emotionally.
  • Provide extensive professional development on implementing authentic assessments, curriculum, pedagogy and instruction.
  • Use authentic pedagogy that challenges students to understand concepts deeply, find and integrate information, assemble evidence, weigh ideas and develop skills of analysis and expression.
  • Use authentic instruction that focuses on active learning in real-world contexts calling for higher-order thinking, consideration of alternatives, extended writing and an audience for student work.
  • Implement intensive interventions that supplement and give extensive practice to students who are having difficulty keeping up with the class.
  • Promote intellectually challenging work that demands rigorous intellectual work and mirrors that of professionals, e.g., mathematics and science instruction that produces what mathematicians and scientists do.
  • Link instruction to student and community experiences that make sense to students.
  • Honor students’ home language, history and culture.
  • Focus more time on core curriculum, streamline course offerings and allow time for personalized instruction and attention.
  • Use project-based instruction that is multidisciplinary, relevant and challenging.
  • Provide for internships with professionals.

Effective Family Engagement vs. Neglect and Disregard for Parents

Engaging parents and extended family members who constitute the student’s “circle of supporters” (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, close friends) is key to a successful partnership that leads to student success academically, socially and emotionally. Many schools are not seizing the opportunity to engage this most valuable educational resource that can enrich the teaching and learning experience.

This “circle of support” is a treasure of information and can serve as a powerful team that shares responsibility for the academic progress of each student. Schools with a strong student holding power do the following for home-school connections.

  • Create a family engagement program where parents and educators discuss implications of a challenging program and the different and mutually supportive roles that educators and parents both play in creating a successful learning environment for the student.
  • Provide periodic assessment data on students and school performance in implementing a challenging instructional program.
  • Provide assessment data in a manner (and language) that parents can understand, interpret and take action.
  • Be a clearinghouse for parents to access educational, social and psychological services for the family and students.
  • Provide training and assistance to parents on topics related to strengthening relationships among students, school staff and other families.
  • Provide ongoing training for teachers and staff on positive family engagement practices aimed at student academic success.


Most young people can bounce back from adversity, stress, trauma, crises and other debilitating issues and can experience success when facilitated by significant others, such as teachers, administrators, parents and friends who have gained their respect and admiration. School personnel can have a direct positive impact on reversing a process that leads to a student’s total disassociation with schools.

Understanding how the problem begins to manifest itself, the factors that contribute to these manifestations, and those research-based practices that schools have used to successfully address these factors is critical to strengthening school holding power. While these lists of practices are by no means exhaustive, they provide a schema of some critical practices, based on research, that are associated with schools with a strong student holding power.

Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program
Featured in At-Risk Student Intervention Implementation Guide

The At-Risk Student Intervention Implementation Guide is a comprehensive resource for identifying programs to help decrease South Carolina’s school dropout population. It came about as a result of recent legislation, The Economic and Education Development Act. The guide was?distributed to each school district, high school and middle school in South Carolina.

IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is featured in the guide as an exemplary program. While designed for schools in South Carolina, the guide is a useful resource for schools in other states.



Battin-Pearson, S., and M.D. Newcomb, R.D. Abbott, K.G. Hill, R.F. Catalano, J.D. Hawkins. “Predictors of Early High School Dropout: A Test of Five Theories,” Journal of Educational Psychology (2000) 92, 568–582.

IDRA. The Answer: Valuing Youth in Schools and Families – A Report on Hispanic Dropouts in the Dallas Independent School District (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1989).

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is development director. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is director of IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2007 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.]