The Freshman Transition Network

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Middle School Dropout Prevention Projects must focus far beyond the Freshman Transition

The greatest danger from some programs claiming to work on dropout prevention is that they actually fragment the educational process even more than it already is. Another transition is forced on students. Progress is hard to make. The goal should be to do the opposite. We must make the educational process more complete and goal centered, less fragmented. We must work to merge the available educational process with the students own story.

During 28 years in child placement social work I developed a strong support for the power of a persons own story to change and heal. That story must be known, accepted, and constantly articulated.

Too many of our middle school students have no connection to their own history, their own story, their own future. In 2005 our inner city Dallas middle school started a project to help students regain a connection to their own story and their own futures. A 350-pound vault was donated to the school and bolted to the floor in the school lobby. 10 shelves were place inside and our 8th graders began an annual tradition in 2005 of writing long letters to themselves before leaving for high school. They write about their own history, stories important in their lives, and their plans for 10 years into the future. These letters were sealed into a self-addressed envelope. Students then hold the letter for a photo with the rest of their Language Arts Class as they pose in front of the vault. After the photo they line up to place their letter onto the shelf for their class inside the vault.

The next day students each receive two copies of that photo, one for their parents for safe keeping and one for them, Their copy is usually quickly autographed by classmates. On the back of each photo is a label describing the photo and documenting the plans for the class 10-year reunion in November of the 10th year. They are encouraged to call to help in the planning as the 10-year reunion time nears. They are given numbers and an address at which to contact the school. They are told that at the reunion the vault will be opened for them to retrieve their letters. They are also reminded that they will be invited at the reunion to speak with the then current 8th grade classes about their recommendations for success. They are warned to be prepared for questions such as "What would you do differently if you were 13 again?"

This has been a very popular project with our students. Over 95% choose to write letters for the vault which now holds over 2,000 letters. See www.studentmotivation.org for details. This project has now spread to 4 more schools within Dallas ISD.

Compared to the Freshman Academy idea the value of the School Archive Project is that it is minimally intrusive while at the same time having a maximum effect. The vault is seen several times every day by our students, over 93% of whom are on the free lunch program. They are constantly reminded of the value of working for their own futures.

We have several more schools now exploring starting School Archive Projects. Since a donor has given money for the vaults it takes nothing but an email from the principal, and a volunteer to run the access to the vault, to install a vault and start the program in a school.

We did a survey both before and after the letter writing by the class in 2007. It indicated that writing the letter alone improved the percentage of students planning to graduate, and to continue studies after high school, by over 20%. That gives a small indication of the power of focusing on the future.

This year we found that there has been a 5% increase in the 11th and 12th grade enrollments in all 32 Dallas ISD high schools combined. This was an increase of 758 students. Of that increase 417 of them came from the two schools who have received almost all the School Archive Project students. Thus 55% of the improvement happened in just two of 32 schools, and those two schools were the schools receiving most of our students. More details are at www.studentmotivation.org along with spreadsheets etc.....

A model is emerging of having School Archives at both the middle school and at the high school level so as to keep students focused on their own futures. Reunions are planned at both the 8th grade and high school level.

Two of the new schools now starting Archive Projects are Sunset High School, one of the high schools with the greatest improvement already documented, and the other middle school also feeding into Sunset. Now both middle schools feeding into Sunset have School Archive Projects. If, within the next 4 years, Sunset has a dropout rate that continues to fall as rapidly as it has over the past 4 years, we will have a powerful victory! Four years ago less than 36% of the 9th grade cohort at Sunset were graduating. Now we are up to almost 50%. (See the graph for Sunset at http://www.studentmotivation.org/dallasisd/#sunset.) By 2015 we may be past a 60% graduation rate and near 70%! Focusing students onto their own futures is the answer!

Does anyone doubt that truth? Why have we not done this long ago for dropout prevention using a more graphic and physical symbol? The 500-pound vault is a very visible reminder of the future, and the critical value of plans for that future, that students walk past several times every day in the school lobby.

Once former students begin to return to reclaim their letters in the Fall of 2014, their priceless feedback and their talk with students will show the true power of this focus on the future.

It was the first class who wrote letters for the vault in 2005 who were part of the largest graduation class in over a decade at BOTH of the high schools our middle school students feed into! That was the Class of 2009!

Something good is definitely happening!

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Comment by Bill Betzen on January 22, 2010 at 11:22pm
I agree. This is an idea that can be part of many other plans to help motivate students toward their own futures. I look forward to hearing how others may make that application. We have a lot to learn. I am increasingly certain that the dropout rates we are now suffering from will be looked back on in 30 years with amazed horror that such a dropout crisis was ever allowed to happen. It is sadly obvious that only a very small percentage of our population realizes how bad the dropout rates really are. Hopefully such a general denial of how bad things are will also disappear, along with dropout rates over 30%.
Comment by Scott Habeeb on January 22, 2010 at 11:01pm
Thanks, Bill, for sharing your experiences with the members of The Network. I think that ideas in this vein could be incorporated into many different transition models.

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