Kevin: Each year more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. That's one student every 26 seconds or 7,000 students each and every day. What can we do to better understand the reasons why kids drop out? How can we help more kids make the right decision to stay in school? And how can we muster the resources needed to tackle the problem, not just inside the classroom but throughout entire communities? This is What I Want to Know. And today, I'm joined by Dr. Debra Duardo to find out.
Kevin: As Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Debra Duardo is the top education leader in the nation's most populous and diverse county, serving 1.4 million students in 80 K-12 school districts. Throughout her tenure, she has tackled the dropout problem by adopting cutting-edge prevention strategies and creating community partnerships. She has helped the L.A. schools increase attendance and graduation rates and strives to help others across the country do the same.
Today she is with us to explore the best practices and innovative approaches to keep more kids in school until they cross the stage with the diploma in hand. Dr. Duardo, welcome to the show.
Debra: It's my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
Kevin: So I want to talk about the issue of dropout prevention and what we can do to make sure kids not only stay in school but are excited about being in school. But I did want to share, have you share a little bit about your own personal journey. It's legendary, but you were a teen mom yourself, and I'm sure you faced the challenges and struggle in deciding about school. I'd like to hear how you worked through that, which led you, in part, to where you are today.
Debra: Yeah. I grew up in Los Angeles in a Mexican-American household, a very low-income household where I didn't really understand the reason why children went to school. I didn't have anybody in my family that had a profession. Most of my family worked in the service industry. I didn't make the connection as to why school was important. So I was one of five kids, and my older siblings all dropped out of school to go to work, and I kind of followed in their direction, got a job. And then early, found out I was pregnant when I was 15 with my first child. And my child was born with spina bifida, and that is a neural tube defect that resulted in him being severely disabled. He uses an electric wheelchair. He's had a lot of challenges, medical challenges throughout his life, and that is what motivated me to go back to school once I became a parent and realized I had a child with a lot of special needs. That motivated me to go back to school and finish my education.
Kevin: And while in school, at what point in time did you decide on your career path, which I mean ultimately was education, but did you know early in your educational process that you wanted to go down this road?
Debra: No, absolutely not. What I wanted to do was I wanted to be a social worker, and I didn't think necessarily of education. I thought I would be a hospital social worker because I spent so much time in hospitals. My son had about 11 operations just the first few years of his life. And I thought I wanted to support other people that had a family member with a chronic health condition.
But as luck would have it, when I was working on my master’s in social welfare, I was placed at a school and had the opportunity to learn about the important role that a social worker can play in education.
Kevin: And one of your first jobs in education, once you got out of school, was as an attendance counselor, and talk about that experience.
Debra: It was just a wonderful opportunity to really engage with children and families. And part of the role of being an attendance counselor meant doing home visits and going to the homes of students and families that were not attending school regularly and really connecting with them and understanding the reasons why their children were not attending school. So it really shaped my understanding of the challenges of why students stopped attending school and what we can do to make sure we're supporting students so that they can reengage.
Kevin: And that begs the question, when you talk about the reasons, because hearing your story and similar stories where the family history is such that virtually no one goes further in school, or some don't even graduate from high school, once you got this job as an attendance counselor, what were some of the other reasons that became clearer to you as to why students drop out?
Debra: There are so many reasons why children stop attending school and eventually drop out. It could be learning challenges. They're having difficulty learning to read or staying focused in school. It could be that the style of learning that they have isn't what they're getting in school, or it could be that they have a learning disability. But also you have students that are bored because they're gifted, or schools are not challenging enough for them.
But other things that we saw also is that sometimes schools aren't the most positive environment, where children are being bullied, and they don't want to come to school, or they don't have a good relationship with their teacher or the staff.
Also, there are issues with challenges in the home and in the community. It could be that their home's not safe, or their community's not safe, that there's violence or substance abuse or divorce, children experiencing hunger or homelessness, teen pregnancy, oftentimes related to poverty, older children staying home so that they can take care of younger siblings or other family members because that's needed. So there are so many reasons why children drop out of school, and that's why it's important that we have conversations with them and find out what those reasons are early on so that we can reengage them.
Kevin: How do we bridge that gap where — because oftentimes school is the only refuge or safe haven for kids to be at, and not counting the kids that are bullied — but how do we bridge that gap when there are so many different reasons that contribute to kids dropping out of school?
Debra: Well, we have to realize that there are many things that we can do to support children and families to prevent them from first attending infrequently and then ultimately dropping out. Some of the things that we can do are related to the schools themselves, making sure that our schools are safe, nurturing environments where children feel they have great relationships with their teachers, and their teachers care about them, that there are high expectations, that the instruction is high quality, culturally relevant, that there isn't any tolerance for bullying taking place at schools. So there are a lot of things that schools can do.
One thing that schools really need to do is they first have to understand what their attendance looks like in their schools. So collecting attendance data, keeping good records, noticing what it looks like in their district, and making sure that they're looking and analyzing that data. So whether looking at which days of the week children aren't attending, disaggregating it by ethnicity, by gender, by age groups, so you really have an understanding of who's attending, who isn't, and what are some of the issues.
And also setting really clear expectations. My understanding of what good attendance is could be completely different from your understanding. So being very clear with parents and students about what the expectations are around coming to school and then implementing strategies.
Kevin: I'm a big believer in community schools where the school is like a community hub, if you will, where it's not just the educational service that's taking place because it is a safe haven, not just for kids, but known as a safe haven for many distressed communities. I've seen community hubs that provide nursing services and counselors and GED programs for parents and families. Talk to me about the community hub concept and community schools and how to best deploy them in various communities in need.
Debra: So the concept of community schools is not a new concept. I mean, we can go back 20-something years, we had something called the Healthy Start program, but it's really a concept and understanding that school districts can't do this work alone, that in order for us to really meet the needs of our children and our families, we need to work together with nonprofit organizations, with our government-based organizations, and come together with a plan on how we're going to make sure that our children have access to the resources that they need.
So for the community school program, and we have a huge program here in Los Angeles County, it's really talking to the community. It's a strength-based model. It's a distributive leadership model. It's talking to the community, talking to students, talking to parents, and asking them what they need, what their children need in order to be successful in school, and it could be different in different communities. It could be assistance with housing. It could be an issue with immigration. It could be an issue with a lack of healthcare, it could be mental health. And it's bringing those people who can provide those resources together so that they can create a plan to ensure those services and supports are accessible to the children in their neighborhood.
Kevin: Under your leadership and working with your partner school districts, all 80 of them, attendance and graduation rates have improved in L.A. County. And what are some of the specific strategies you use? And I heard you talk about some of them just now, but as it relates to this dropout prevention, dropout challenge we face and the best preventative measures, what are some of the things you did to encourage the system to look at it differently, which led to its success?
Debra: Well, I think in terms of system-wide, looking district-wide. It was a matter of collecting records, analyzing those records, disaggregating those records, implementing tiered approaches or multi-system approaches to whatever the challenges are.
So, for example, if we know our kindergartners and our ninth graders are the worst attenders, how are we really targeting that population of students and having strategies in place to better support them, partnerships that will incentivize children to come to school, so whether it's rewards that they get for improving attendance, good communication with parents, helping parents to understand how important attendance is. But it's also really about not — I personally don't believe in taking a punitive approach, but really looking at the systems, the families, how we can better support them rather than punish them for challenges that they're facing within their communities.
And I think in terms of systems. It's not looking at this as an individual issue with one child but looking at the root causes, identifying some of the systems that are lacking to better support our children and our families. So whether it's challenges accessing healthcare, challenges with homelessness, the foster care system, ensuring that anyone who's serving children and families is coming together with a designated, developed plan on how to make sure we have a plan in place to address those barriers that are preventing children from attending school.
There's a saying that our systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results that we're getting. So we really need to look at — when we have hundreds of thousands of children missing, not identified, not in school — we need to look at our systems.
Kevin: Once you identify where there are challenges in the system, how are you able to shake things loose so that they're more receptive to kids, and kids feel like it's more of an attractive option to go back to school? How are you able to change systems?
Debra: Well, one is by developing the partnerships, and you have to connect with the people that are willing to make change. There are a lot of people that are going to say, oh, it's the kids. It's the families. They don't care about school. And you have to move beyond those folks. You have to present data. You have to be able to show that it is possible and instill hope that we can create the changes that we need to see. But we need to have everybody working together, going in the same direction, supporting one another so that we can make those improvements.
Kevin: How can we, in today's world, connect with children in a way where they make the connection or the link between a quality life, going to school and a quality life, a better life for their families? How are we able to bring them closer to the idea of understanding that it can make a difference?
Debra: Well, I think one of the most important things that we can do is simply expose children to opportunities and concepts that they may have never been exposed to. So helping children to understand, if you want to be a veterinarian, or if you want to be a school counselor, or if you want to be doing work, STEM research, that this is the amount of education that you need. These are the types of careers that are available. This is how much you would earn if you had that career. This is what this career looks like, taking them on field trips, exposing them to people that look like them that are in those types of positions. Oftentimes it's just a lack of exposure.
Kevin: Dr. Duardo, I just have one more question. This is what I really want to know. I know that you visit schools. You talk to children and young people all the time. And thinking of that child who is considering dropping out, who hasn't found anything meaningful in their school experience, share with us what you say to children who you speak with and what message points you give that could, in some way, motivate a child to stay in school or get back on track. I know you've done this before, but I'd be interested to hear exactly what message points you use with today's children who are going through those kinds of challenges.
Debra: I don't think today's children are any different than the children of yesterday. Children want to know that you love them, that you care about them, that you can connect with them. When I meet a child that may be at risk of dropping out of school, I ask them what their dreams and hopes are and how they see their future, and are they happy where they're at? Are they on track to get to those dreams and hopes?
I tell them that they have the potential to do anything that they want. I use myself as an example. I tell them they're usually way ahead of where I was when I was their age. I tell them what I did and that I went back to school and how that changed my life and how it changed my children's lives. And that they really, whatever their circumstances are now that seem like challenges that they can't overcome, that those are temporary and that doesn't determine where they can go in their future. That really, if they're willing to do the work, if they're willing to ask for help, that they can do anything that they want to do, and they have the potential and the ability to get there.
Kevin: Perfect advice. Dr. Debra Duardo, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Debra: Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK.
For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com.
I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
As Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Debra Duardo is the top education leader in the nation's most populous and diverse county—serving 1.4 million students in 80 K–12 school districts.
Throughout her tenure, she has tackled the dropout problem by adopting cutting-edge prevention strategies and creating community partnerships. She has helped the LA schools increase attendance and graduation rates and strives to help others across the country do the same.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.