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Keeping it Real

Programs stressing real-world skills are reaching potential dropouts.

By Mary Ellen Flannery, Cynthia Kopkowski, and John Rosales

Think of an enormous societal problem—child abuse, homelessness, poverty, the proliferation of guns. Students in Massachusetts' Project COFFEE have experienced it.

More than half of these youth have serious drug problems and more than 90 percent are social users. About two-thirds have faced a courtroom judge and, last year, nearly a quarter missed school because they were waking up in jail or drug treatment centers. More than three-quarters have some kind of disability. More than a third take medication for attention and oppositional defiant disorders or other problems. And all are at risk of dropping out.

This Massachusetts community is not alone. Nationally, nearly a third of public school students fail to graduate with their class. With students all over the country—from blue Hawaii to gray New England—carrying increasingly heavy loads in life, programs that emphasize work-related skills, like Project COFFEE, help keep them in school and focused. For some, they make all the difference.

Edward deJesus, an expert on dropout prevention and president and founder of the Youth Development and Research Fund, says when teachers or mentors talk to young people about careers and help them cultivate their interests, it keeps students engaged in the education process. "When kids begin to picture themselves in the workforce," says deJesus, "they're learning who they are, what they want to do, what their talents are."

That's why increasing career education and workforce readiness programs in schools is a key point in the Dropout Prevention Plan NEA unveiled last year (see the full plan at

NEA Today writers looked at three programs in strikingly different locations where educators have seen work-study and career education programs reach students in danger of dropping out and keep them on the path to a diploma.

There's More to Life than Bling

Project COFFEE (Co-Operative Federation for Educational Experience), an alternative middle and high school that serves an hour-wide ring around Oxford, Massachusetts, is the trailblazer in dropout prevention. It's been nearly 30 years since Oxford's educators first combined academic and occupational education with the specific goal of preventing kids from dropping out. Since then, hundreds of would-be dropouts have earned diplomas, and Project COFFEE has served as a national model for keeping kids in school.

In the mornings, students attend extremely small academic classes (no more than eight students). In the afternoons, an equal amount of time is spent on occupational instruction, where they might be nailing together sheds for local homeowners or fixing a customer's snow-blower engine in one of five different vocational shops. It's real work—not "classroom" assignments—and the students are responsible for scoping out the job, determining the materials needed, going to Home Depot, and doing all of the things that legitimate contractors do, start to finish.

"For a lot of these kids, it's the first time in their education where they can stand back and say, 'Look at what I did,' and be legitimately proud," says Project COFFEE Counselor Nancy James.

It's all about making it real.

"We're trying to show these kids that there is another life—and that life can bring them the kinds of rewards that perhaps are more meaningful than a lot of bling," says James, who has been at the school for 16 years.

There are challenges: Like the 13-year-old who was picked up at 2 a.m. by local police, $400 in his pocket, two 20-something gang members by his side. Since coming to Project COFFEE, he's been locked up for various drugs and weapons charges. Now he's out of jail, but his mother's in. When James asked him how she was coping, he said, "Oh, she's OK. My aunt's there, too, keeping her company."

And there are successes. Last year, a recovering drug addict returned to Project COFFEE after a stint in rehab, wearing a 30-day Alcoholics Anonymous pin on his lapel. James gave him a congratulatory card, which he showed around school—"Nobody has ever given me a card before!" he said.

He graduated, stayed sober, and now he drives trucks for a soda distribution company—making a good salary and, as he likes to say, "with full benefits, too."

With a Little Help from My Mentor

Convincing students to stay in school and work toward long-term goals like college and a job can be a lot easier with the help of someone who has actually accomplished those same goals. That's the idea behind Project Connect, a federally funded Des Moines, Iowa, public school program that partners mentors from the community and teachers with students who are at risk of dropping out.

Teachers and mentors—a group that includes medical workers, bank presidents, and engineers—work in concert to help students gain a positive view of school. The roughly 170 mentors commit to one hour a week, each week, for at least a year. "When school is a positive place and [students] know people there care about them and the mentor is a part of that school team, it increases attendance," says program director Barbara Anderson.

Once students are in the door, community members help nurture their career interests, and then, working in conjunction with teachers, show how their coursework relates to those goals. This past year, a retired mentor who worked with Iowa state government during his career arranged for several students to tour the state Capitol and visit several legislators. Another mentor, a graphic designer, brought her laptop computer to school and worked with her student on projects.

Sixth-grade language arts and reading teacher Lynne Albright watches her student's eyes light up as the clock approaches mentor arrival time. "It builds enthusiasm in the students for learning," says Albright, who works at one of the 14 schools that host mentors.

The success of the program lies in part with how educators like Albright strengthen the link between what kids learn in class and what they get from their mentors. Teachers conduct review sessions for mentors on reading and math strategies (which in some cases starts with a class full of adults anxiously trying to remember how to add fractions, says Anderson). At mentor recruiting fairs, teachers give inspirational talks to those involved with the program.

"What they're trying to do, what any of us are trying to do, is to let those children see the opportunities that are out there for them now and in the future," says fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Bleeker. She works closely with the mentors, advising them when they come to meet with students about whether the child is having a good or a bad day, and how they're doing academically.

Anderson recalls one sixth-grade boy who struggled to read at a second-grade level. Turns out, his mother couldn't read. With the help of his mentor, who supplemented classroom instruction, he went from failing coursework to getting C's and B's. "You can just imagine how much more pleasant school is for him," Anderson says. From the beginning of last year to the end of the year, absenteeism decreased 35 percent for all participants.

While Project Connect focuses its efforts at the middle and elementary school levels, Des Moines students aren't forgotten as they transition to high school. That's when a companion program, Intensive Career Exploration, picks up. Each year, up to 500 students earn credit for career-based courses, such as business, agriscience, or technology—plus they have opportunities for paid employment in their field of interest, too. Working alongside education support professionals in their own schools or in businesses in the community, "they see how their skills are applied in the workplace" says Karen Ligas, the program coordinator.

The teachers who coordinate the work-study programs, including Ligas, communicate regularly with the students' job supervisors. "It's a unique way for the teachers to have an additional mentoring role with the students," says Ligas, "to build on the relationships they already have with them."

Hangin' Loose and Hangin' On

It's not the glorious beaches and made-for-surfing waves that educators at Honolulu's President William McKinley High School worry will tempt their students to ditch classes. And although high schoolers there face the usual host of adolescent temptations, there's something else teachers fear will lure them away from school for good: a steady paycheck from one of the city's many hotels, restaurants, and spas.

No one on the McKinley staff wants to discourage students with a self-reliant streak. But when some young adults discover that they don't necessarily need a high school diploma to get a full-time job in the city's booming tourist industry, some drop out. "Why bother with a diploma," they figure, "if I can start pulling a paycheck right now? What will another year of tests and homework get me?"

It turns out, that little piece of paper means quite a bit of cash over a person's working years. High school dropouts earn only 65 percent of what people who have high school degrees make, according to a 2006 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A diploma keeps young adults' prospects open for better job opportunities and further education.

It's sometimes hard to reach teenagers with that message, especially those trying to help their parents make ends meet. But McKinley staff says drawing a close connection between what they teach in their classes and why students will need it in the working world goes a long way to keeping kids engaged in school.

The school's Occupational Skills Program (OSP) is a six-week work-study curriculum that places students in temporary jobs throughout the city, from the hotel and restaurant industry to beauty salons, video production firms, manufacturing plants, and even the Honolulu Zoo. It's just one of nine dropout prevention programs at McKinley High.

OSP students generally work up to 15 hours per week, from 8 to 11 a.m., Monday through Friday, for school credit, not pay. Meyer says the program provides not only job training, but real-world lessons about workplace protocol, punctuality, and the importance of school learning. "When [students] experience work sites or colleges," says Meyer, "they see that they have to have the reading, writing, and math skills."

Some of these short-term work assignments may lead to a job after the student graduates, but they all require the student to stay in school—those who drop out not only lose the job but also the job reference from the employer.

Apart from the OSP, teachers at McKinley seize opportunities to reveal the "real-world" aspects of their lessons, too. The school's popular Aquaculture class was designed by science teacher Geoffrey Au not only to fulfill biology requirements, but also to provide students with job training.

"The students have been around fish all their lives and this [class] shows them a way they can earn a living at something they are already familiar with," Au says. After taking his class, some of his students are able to secure part-time jobs at local fish farms.

Or they can nurture their work ethics at McKinley and take off in a different direction. Healani Mathews, a student who calls Au "my second dad," says Au is helping him gear up to go to college after graduation. "I love Aquaculture class because of him, and I like working with fish. It reminds me of the kind of work my grandfather used to do."

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For more on our continuing coverage of dropout prevention programs, head to NEA's page on Dropout Prevention.

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