A Dropout Cure in Dallas
School Archive Project Working to Improve Promotion Rates in Middle and High School
By Bill Betzen
Quintanilla Middle School
The School Archive Project
With students in the Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) struggling to graduate, one middle school created a program to help connect those students with their own futures. The School Archive Project at Quintanilla Middle School was born of the frustration of watching capable students lost in the chaos of urban poverty in an ever changing American culture. With too many students having little awareness of their own family history or of their own plans for the future, The Archive Project’s goal is to focus students onto their own story, their own history, and their own plans for the future.
In 2004 Dallas Independent School District had the distinction of having the highest dropout rate in the U.S. of any school district serving a city with a million or more people. Since 2005-06, using the Swanson Cumulative Promotion Index to measure graduation rate, Dallas ISD has improved its graduation rate. It improved 2.1 percentage points in 2006-07, and then 3.8 percentage points in 2007-08, to achieve a 46.6 percent graduation rate. While this is the second year in a row that the CPI measurement has improved for Dallas ISD, it is still painfully below 50 percent.
Daytime curfews and truancy fines are being discussed and tried in Dallas to help improve the graduation rate. But these efforts should never receive more attention, media time, or human effort than the ultimate goals of education itself: self-improvement.
The School Archive Project is working to help students understand the value of education. The message must be delivered in a manner students will accept and believe, going beyond statements by teachers, research studies, statistics and pleading parents. Instead, students are placed in a situation where they can discover this message themselves, understand it and embrace it.
How the School Archive Project works
In 2005, The School Archive Project began when only one vault was bolted to the floor in Dallas’ Quintanilla Middle School lobby. The vault is under bright spotlights in a place of respect. It functions as a 10-year time-capsule to hold the history and goals of students. It helps deliver the message of the value of goals.
Above the School Archive is a sign saying “Achievement & Goals Archive.” Everyone entering the school sees it under the bright lights. Students quickly learn it is where a letter they write to themselves before leaving for high school will be kept safe for a decade.
The last week of 8th grade students finish their letter about their history, current life, and goals for the future. They are repeatedly told that changing goals is normal. They can expect it. Not having goals is the road to failure.
They seal their letters into a self-addressed envelope. Then, on Archiving Day, they pose with their Language Arts class holding this sealed letter for a photo. They then line up and one by one place their letter inside the vault.
Students receive a copy of this group photo. Information is on the back about their 10-year class reunion. They are reminded that they will be invited at their reunion to speak with then current 8th grade classes, giving their “Recommendations for Success” talk. They are warned to prepare for questions from the decade younger students such as: “Would you do anything differently if you were 13 again?”
Thinking of answering such a question in 10 years helps students realize the value of current school work. They must build their own futures now. Nobody is going to do it for them. The Archive Project makes it clear that they themselves will be the ultimate judges.
The annual cost for the Archive Project is less than $2 per 8th grade student. The vault costs less than $1,000. The installation costs for placement in the school lobby under spotlights can vary.
Results and growth
The first students to write letters for the School Archive in 2005 are now seniors. The two high schools most of these students attend, Pinkston and Sunset, now have the largest senior classes they have had in 12 years. They have also seen their 9th to 10th grade student attrition rates go down over 26 percent since 2005. Their ninth grade classes are smaller because fewer students are failing. All upper grades are larger due to students staying in school.
Dallas is now in the process of installing a vault in the lobby at each one of five additional schools who are starting their own School Archive Projects: one high school, one elementary school, and three additional middle schools. More schools may also come forward to start their Archive Projects during the summer.
One of these middle schools is the only feeder school into a high school that has had an average 9th to 12th grade promotion rate below 40 percent for the past 10 years. Following the enrollment patterns in this high school will be an excellent test of the power of connecting a student with their own story and their goals for the future.
Schools at all levels can use an Archive Project to reinforce the focus on goals for students of all ages. The achievements to be made are just beginning to be documented.
To learn more about The School Archive Project, visit http://www.studentmotivation.org/.