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Dropout Prevention in Montana: Implementation of Early Warning Systems


Friday, February 19, 2016


Female high school student

In 2015 Montana reported its highest graduation rate in decades at 86 percent. Since 2009 the state’s dropout rate has also been slashed by more than a third. These gains are a testament to strong leadership and a deep commitment by stakeholders at the school, district, and state levels to keep students on track to graduate. Joining in this effort is the Montana Data Use Alliance (MDUA), which includes representatives from two dozen school districts, the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI), and state associations and universities that collaborate on the use of data and research to evaluate and improve dropout prevention efforts and high school graduation outcomes.

A major focus of the MDUA is to support district implementation of early warning systems (EWS). These systems rely on data to signal early on whether a student is at risk of not graduating from high school, so that appropriate interventions can be implemented. Since 2012, REL Northwest has been supporting these efforts at the state level by collaborating with OPI on a statewide EWS and—at the local level—by providing direct assistance to districts across Montana as they develop and implement their own EWS.

A Practitioner’s Guide To Implementing Early Warning Systems

When districts in Montana began exploring EWS implementation, they found very little information about practical, effective strategies. To fill this gap, REL Northwest’s Sarah Frazelle and her team at REL Northwest researched and summarized core ideas, recommendations, and experiences of schools and organizations around the country that are using these data systems, "so that others just getting started with this work can avoid common pitfalls," explains Frazelle. The resulting guidebook was published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences in 2015. It covers key areas of implementation, such as establishing and training a team to use the EWS, identifying accurate indicators and developing usable indicator reports, mapping interventions in response to student needs, and evaluating student progress.

EWS Learning Modules

REL Northwest also worked closely with Montana districts to create of a series of learning modules consisting of computer-based group activities that highlight key trends in EWS implementation. This interactive series walks participating districts through several steps, including how to start an EWS initiative, roll out the system to all high schools and middle schools, and ultimately evaluate the system and interventions in place. REL Northwest has worked with OPI to provide training and coaching to Montana districts through the modules, including customizing them for both rural and urban contexts.

EWS Webinar Series

REL Northwest is also collaborating with other RELs in the national network on a series of free webinars for schools and districts implementing an EWS. View a recording of the first, EWS 101: Introduction to the 5 Core Components. The second webinar on March 31, 2016, will look at how to build an effective team and provide interventions within a tiered framework system.