9 Ways to Decrease Your Dropout Rate Today

Dropping out is a systemic issue, but change starts today

dropout rate

Every 26 seconds in the United States, a child drops out of high school. Despite considering ourselves world leaders, our country ranks 22 out of 27 developed countries in terms of graduation rates. Our high dropout rate doesn’t just affect the future of individual children, it affects us all.

The challenges that contribute to dropping out are often systemic and will take a coalition of teachers, school leaders, political leaders, community members, parents, and more to tackle. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t small steps you can take today.

Here are nine ways to create an immediate impact on the dropout rate at your school.

1. Tell kids the real story

Present students with data on how dropping out can impact aspects of their well-being, such as income and life expectancy.

  • High school graduates earn an average of $9,245 more per year than high school dropouts.
  • The U.S. death rate for those with less than 12 years of education is 2.5 times higher than those with 13 or more years of education.

Illustrate those statistics by inviting guest speakers, such as former students, to share their experiences so that students see the real-life stories behind the numbers.

2. Reach out to your community 


Community members who don’t have school-aged children may feel like the dropout rate doesn’t affect them. But it does. Everyone wins when students stay in school. Graduation rates increase when students have community support and communities benefit with more graduates in their workforce economy.

“Dropout rates impact entire communities with decreased buying power, lower-rated schools, and decreased property values. There is a trickle effect here,” said Dr. Pamela Bruening, president of the National Alternative Education Association and consultant for the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

3. Give students a positive place to be

When students enjoy their school’s environment, they’ll want to participate and stay in school. “A positive school culture, meaningful relationships with adults, and engaging instruction are all ways to motivate students to want to be in school,” Dr. Bruening said.

See if members of your community would like to contribute to your school culture by participating in events, donating supplies, or opening up their businesses for field trips or internships. Talk to community centers about how you can partner together to ensure at-risk students have a place to be during the entire day and into the summer.

4. Provide career and technical education

Career and technical education classes make school more interesting and meaningful for students. “Personalized learning is another way of making learning more engaging and relevant for students,” Dr. Bruening said.

She notes that the most successful career technical education programs reflect the needs of the community where they’re implemented.  For example, “In more rural areas, agriculture may be more popular,” she said. “This also provides opportunities for students to prepare for ways they can contribute and help support their own communities.”

5. Hold stakeholders accountable for the graduation rate

“When everyone owns it—even the kindergarten teacher or the businessman—changes can happen systemically,” Dr. Bruening said.

Initiatives are most successful when everyone is invested and involved in seeing students graduate. “The greatest success has been experienced by school teams that train and plan together, such as the Diploma Planning Institute trainings provided by the NDPC,” Dr. Bruening said.

6. Provide multiple pathways for graduation

Not every student learns the same, and some students may have personal commitments (children, jobs, etc) outside of school that make traditional high school a challenge. You can impact the dropout rate by providing alternatives—dual enrollment, academic learning experiences, night school, and career academy schools—students can take to graduate.

Online education courses are also a popular alternative. “Online education has increased educational options for students both in credit recovery and for students who wish to graduate early,” Dr. Bruening said.

7. Use technology to engage students

Instead of competing with students’ smartphones, educators can use technology as a tool to bolster learning and keep their attention. “Student-centered learning allows teachers to take a more facilitative role in the learning process,” Dr. Bruening said. “Technology allows teachers to invite students to personalized learning like never before, but there is a paradigm shift for most teachers in thinking about instruction differently.”

Think about ways you can incorporate both the technology students already use and the technology that could get them excited about future careers into your curriculum. You could start a robotics program, for example, or try one of these innovative ideas to use social media or video in your final exams.

8. Keep schools open to serve as community hubs in the summer

When schools stay open, students are encouraged to keep their minds sharp, which can prevent them from falling behind later. “Summer offerings for students provide additional options for them to recover credits, get ahead or increase their specific skills,” Dr. Bruening said. “Summer camps that incorporate learning as well as fun can also enhance students’ skills, keeping them fresh for the start of another school year.”

Traditionally, summer school has been about cramming curriculum into the brains of students who’d rather be just about anywhere else. The best summer programs make learning engaging by providing more student choice, project-based curriculum, and individualized goals.

9. Start a mentoring program

Ongoing support through mentoring and tutoring services help keep students on track to graduate. “Mentoring programs can take many forms. Some schools assign adult mentors within the schools, some use community volunteers, some utilize older students or college students,” Dr. Bruening said. “The primary objective should be that mentors are dependable, consistent, and form strong bonds with the students receiving the mentoring.

Find out more about how you can help impact our nation’s dropout rate at the National Dropout Prevention Center.

Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more ideas on how to transform your school.