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Keeping All Students on the Graduation Path


Thursday, April 9, 2015


College grads receiving their diplomas

Reflections From a National Event

Seattle, WA—As school systems nationwide build their capacity to use data to identify students at risk of falling off the graduation path, they are looking at how best to implement and sustain early warning systems (EWS). These systems help flag students who are at risk of dropping out and provide interventions to help them stay on track to graduate from high school in four years. As REL Northwest’s Nettie Legters sees it, “We are at a turning point with early warning systems and data use moving from the margins to the mainstream.”

Addressing nearly 100 practitioners, policymakers, and researchers from across the country who gathered at a March 13 event in Seattle to learn from each other about EWS implementation, Legters said, “Your being here signifies that this country is getting serious about building systems that are going to put all young people on the graduation path.” Convened by REL Northwest in collaboration with REL Appalachia, REL Midwest, and REL West, the daylong event explored emerging tools and models, findings from large-scale research studies, and resources that support implementation in a variety of settings.

Implementation Lessons and Research

One panel comprising practitioner-researcher teams from four different REL research alliances shared lessons learned in EWS implementation. Takeaways included the importance of integrating the EWS with existing interventions; basing decisions on local, current student data; ensuring everyone at the table understands the system’s value and processes; and establishing teams and common planning time to analyze the data, customize interventions, and monitor progress.

Another panel highlighted three research studies underway across the country:

Principal investigators of these studies shared what they’ve learned so far and provided strategies for system evaluation.

Breakout sessions showcased examples of EWS implementation at the state, district, and school levels. They also highlighted how EWS works in various settings: in rural communities, middle schools, and as part of a college and career readiness indicator framework. Keynote speaker Jim Balfanz of City Year, a national organization that trains and deploys young adults to mentor at-risk students, spoke on the role of community-based organizations and other partnerships in extending school capacity to support students, and how to develop and sustain those partnerships over time.

Guides To Help Start and Sustain EWS

Two authors of implementation guides, Sarah Frazelle and Mindee O’Cummings, led a workshop featuring strategies from these free resources. O’Cummings presented a framework outlined in the National High School Center’s Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System Implementation Guide; Frazelle focused on the five key components described in REL Northwest’s A Practitioner’s Guide To Implementing Early Warning Systems. Participants discussed these frameworks and others they are using to establish efficient and sustainable EWS routines, such as team protocols, resource mapping, and root cause analysis. “Indicators are not inherently linked to interventions,” said O’Cummings. “Only by understanding the root cause of why a student is struggling can we initiate interventions.”

REL Northwest Director Christopher Mazzeo referenced his EWS experiences through research alliances and working at The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research to acknowledge that the road to systems change can be slow. “Sometimes things don’t happen right away, and just looking at the data alone won’t solve the problem,” said Mazzeo. “The real work is folks coming together to grapple with the data—make sense of them, learn from them; alter and differentiate interventions based on individual student needs; and marshal resources outside of school walls to make a meaningful system for kids. The hard work of implementation is where the difference is made.”