Michigan uses online learning to reach at-risk students

Online learning can help many groups of students succeed and excel.
Online learning can help many groups of students succeed and excel.

As a struggling high school student in metro Detroit, Kyle Grigg faced a terrible prospect. Last spring, Kyle was asked by his public high school counselor to leave the school because he did not have enough time to make up lost credits and graduate. Kyle knew he didn’t want to be one of the 20,000 students who drop out of Michigan public high schools each year–but he didn’t know what else to do.

When his high school doors closed behind him, Kyle’s lifelong opportunities become severely limited. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual income of a dropout is $24,000, which is 60 percent below that of high school graduates. Kyle didn’t want to bus tables for the rest of his life, but finding even a low-skill job in Michigan has become increasingly difficult. Michigan’s 14.3 percent unemployment rate currently leads the nation. With limited earning potential and low chances of gainful employment, it’s not surprising that many dropouts end up in correctional facilities or prison. The New York Times recently reported that, on any given day, a dropout is five times more likely to be incarcerated–with the cost of lifetime incarceration exceeding the cost of public school education by a factor of two or three.

While Kyle’s story is striking, it is hardly unique. By pushing out students who are failing and unlikely to graduate, as well as truants and students with behavior problems, schools can raise their test-score averages and graduation rates while reducing suspensions and dropout rates. Many times, this happens when school systems do not quickly identify and support students who are struggling or exhibiting other early warning signs of dropping out of school, like disengagement and poor attendance.

Michigan’s response

Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan decided to spotlight the troubling dropout numbers across Michigan. He issued a “Dropout Challenge” and began recruiting schools to step up their efforts in identifying youth exhibiting early warning signs of dropping out of school, providing appropriate support, and offering alternative routes for students to graduate. At the same time, the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Jennifer Granholm enacted legislation raising the dropout age to 18 and providing failing high schools with turnaround strategies and supports.

To support participating schools in the Dropout Challenge, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) developed a four-fold strategy of engagement, funded in part by the state’s Title II, Part D, Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) competitive grant program. Our work involves increasing the availability and use of prevention data, strengthening public policy, identifying and disseminating best practices, and sponsoring alternative routes to high school graduation.

Laura Ascione

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