Love Evident in Top Dropout Prevention Programs

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The New Directions Alternative Education Center in Manassas, Va. won a 2013 National Dropout Prevention Network award for their work. L-R: Principal Robert Eichorn, Instructional Coach Marie Sobers, Special Ed/Mathematics Teacher Laura Szupinka. Photo by Maggie Lee

ATLANTA — All a young person needs to stay in school, apparently, is love.

Some permutation of love, anyway. Either the spiritually tinged “only transformational thing we have,” that Bill Milliken called it; or the family devotion that some award-winning dropout prevention programs emphasize.

That devotion or love is even visible in some of the youth service workers who came to make their speeches or collect awards in Atlanta this week at the annual National Dropout Prevention Network Conference this week.

Milliken is the founder of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that puts people he called “routers” into about 2,700 schools nationwide. The routers connect students and families with businesses, social services, volunteer organizations and others who get young peoples’ lives on track.

Like, say, the middle schooler who told her school’s router about her hungry, desperate home life with a mother swallowed by substance abuse.  Besides getting the child in new school uniforms and a safe home with her grandmother, the school’s router also led the girl to self esteem workshops, a college tour, scholarships and other supports.

Milliken gave a conference address and signed his book The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic!

“I’m alive today because someone came into my neighborhood and loved me into change … somebody walked through the valley of the shadow of adolescence and wouldn’t give up and saw something in me and gave me hope,” said Milliken. He himself grew up in a neighborhood plagued by the mafia.

Communities in Schools has racked up dozens of awards from many organizations in more than three decades of work. That’s longer than some of this year’s NPDN award winners have existed. 

This year, NDPN gave a Crystal Star Award to a school in Virginia, the New Directions Alternative Education Center, opened in 2004. The school and its staff go beyond education.

Principal Robert Eichorn runs his campus so it’s a “home base” for Prince William County students who have been expelled, suspended or unsuccessful in their base schools.

“In large systems, things get dropped sometimes,” he said. Things like contacts with child protective services, parole offices, families, mental health providers and contacts among teachers about certain students.

New Directions teachers and staff have incredible flexibility to look individually at each young person and route them through classes and activities, several times if necessary, to build on the child’s strengths then move them toward college or career readiness.

“We’re meeting the kids and families where they’re at and we adjust,” said Eichorn.

The “adjustments” he talks about go beyond the call of duty. Schedules can work around both probation officer meetings and childcare duties. Staff and their own families have a regular literacy group and dinner with students and their families. If a family needs babysitting so they can go speak at a school board meeting, it happens. His staff also mindfully practice what they call “strategic short-term memory loss,” just to make sure everybody feels welcome, even if they made a poor choice.

Marie Sobers, an instructional coach at New Directions, perches on the edge of her chair and leans forward to chat with a smile about her “adjudicated boys” or gush about the school’s counselors and the staff’s open door policy to each other and students.  

“The things New Directions has done have filtered back to traditional schools,” she said.

“I know the power of the family,” said Karen Cooper-Haber, also a Crystal Star winner, who works hundreds of miles away in South Carolina.

That’s why she brings family counselors to Richland School District Two, where she works. Kids who appear to be at risk of dropping out or of being expelled get channeled to her Building Bridges to Success program.

“We focus on family communication … family strengths,” she said. Her five counselors, along with university student helpers, have seen hundreds of families.

Some youth service agencies, Cooper-Haber said, have sometimes overlooked family, tending to write off the adults as hopelessly screwed up. But, she said research shows programs are more successful if they speak to the whole family.

“We try to change the family’s narrative,” she said.

One of her families was a pair of grandparents raising a grandchild. The family found it difficult to talk about family issues with strangers. Like many low-income families, they never had access to mental health services and had no experience with therapy.

But the grandparents, desperate, did the difficult thing anyway, talking and learning for the sake of their grandchild.

Or, as Milliken put it, “It’s not programs that change people, it’s relationships …  Love is gritty, it’s a verb, it’s an action.”