• by Josie D. Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 2015 •

Josie CortezA few years ago, I wrote about an incident when parents put their children on a cross-country flight to visit their grandparents. When the flight arrived, the grandparents waited eagerly to greet their grandchildren. Everyone got off the airplane, but no children were to be found. The grandparents were frantic. How could the airline have lost their grandchildren?

Quickly, the flight crew and airline agents mobilized to find those children, and in what seemed like an eternity the children were found in another airport. The airline president accepted responsibility, apologized and promised to find out what had happened and to change the system so that a child would never be lost again.

Texas schools lose a student every four minutes. That’s more than one out of four (27 percent) students lost. Close to one out of seven (14 percent) are White, two out of five (37 percent) are Hispanic and one out of three (30 percent) are African American. Since IDRA’s first comprehensive study of Texas dropouts in 1986, schools in this state have lost 3.1 million high school students at a cumulative cost of $976 billion in lost earnings and taxes.

Of those who do graduate from high school, only two out of five (41 percent) enroll in a two- or four-year public college or university the following fall. Of those, about one out of six (16.9 percent) earned a degree or certificate after six years. By ethnicity, one out of four White students earned a degree or certificate, compared to one out of 10 African American students and Hispanic students. (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2010)

It is no longer disputed that many students never reach their final destination. Even worse, no one is looking for them. Many even refuse to acknowledge the students are gone. Those who do admit they lost students usually blame the students or their families for the loss.

Imagine if the airline president had said that their young charges had not arrived because they were minority or because their parents were economically disadvantaged or because their children were “unmotivated.”

Instead, everyone with that airline took responsibility for ensuring safe passage for those young passengers. The same must be true of our schools, colleges and universities. They, too, must take more responsibility for ensuring safe passage for our children – they must hold on to them from the beginning of their journey at prekindergarten to their final destination of college and career.

What needs to be done?

Reframe the discourse: From “Deficit” to “Valuing”

Re-form the school culture by changing the paradigm from dropout prevention to graduation – where every student is known and valued, and where losing even one student is not an option.

Ensure better preparation beginning at preK levels to ensure students’ success during middle and high school transitions.

There are key transition points along the preK-20 pipeline where a student’s safe passage can become perilous. Preparation and support of everyone in the educational process are critical in these junctures of preK to kindergarten, elementary to middle school (or junior high), eighth grade to ninth, and high school to college. Students don’t suddenly drop out in the 10th grade, that’s just the tipping point. There is a long dysfunctional process that begins early in the pipeline of some students being seen as a burden, of being told they don’t belong, that they’re not smart enough, that their parents don’t value education, or that they lack a “college-going culture.”

The challenge with an integrated systemic approach is that everything is connected and interrelated. One person or event can have negative effects far beyond an isolated incident, as in a teacher telling a first grader he is destined to drop out of school and sending him to a disciplinary alternative education program for being a bit disruptive.

The good news about an integrated systemic approach is that one person or event can have a stabilizing and positive influence, such as a teacher believing that every child is valuable, none is expendable, and working to ensure that all of her first graders are college and career ready. Yes, first graders. Because just as there are tipping points for leaving school, there are tipping points for succeeding.

Engage at a systemic level
IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework™ provides a model for assessing a school’s conditions and outcomes, for identifying leverage points for improvement, and for informing action. Using this model, levers of change can be pinpointed, as can change strategies that involve community, coalition and school capacity building. (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010)

Get actionable knowledge and use data across transition points
While there is a great deal of data available from the Texas Education Agency, what the data actually mean to a parent or a community member or even some school staff often remains a mystery. It is even more of a mystery trying to look at the entire educational pipeline – from prekindergarten through college.

Through IDRA’s OurSchool Portal, educators, students, parents and community members can find out how well their high school campus is preparing and graduating students, what factors may be weakening school holding power and what they can do to address them.

Develop better processes to verify school status
Schools must account for every student in our public school system. And just like the airline company, they must take responsibility for students they have lost, find out what happened when they lose a student and change the system so that no one will ever be lost again.

IDRA can help schools change, but we must all start with the facts. We cannot continue to play the “leaver code” shell game. The stakes are too high for us not to face facts.

Once schools and communities account for every student enrolled, and every student lost, then we can begin to find out what happened in those schools that lost students along the way. We can change those systems to match the characteristics of all students and contributions that students and their families bring.

Provide resources to ensure quality schools
Schools must have the effective training and resources needed to support their administrators, teachers and support staff. There are many dedicated and committed educators and families who are meaningfully working together to improve the system. There are success stories that hold promise and give hope that the system can change so students succeed.

What will make a difference is changing schools so that everyone believes that holding on to students from the beginning of their journey all the way to college and career is expected and demanded. Nothing less will be acceptable for the children of our state.


Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. High School to College Linkages website (Austin, Texas: THECB, 2010).

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

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

[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2011 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.]