Last week, GradNation of America's Promise Alliance released a new report titled Don't Quit on Me: What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships. As a follow up report to last year's Don't Call Them Dropouts, this new study focuses on the importance of the strength, number, and nurture of relationships students have throughout high school, and how it affects their choice to stay in school. Gathered from the perspectives of young people themselves, the report found that relationships are cornerstone to a student's success in high school, and that it is pivotal that individuals, schools, and communities focus on connecting students with mentors who can provide students with a web of support and resources they need to succeed.

The Power of Building Relationships with Students

The report finds that it is absolutely critical to first understand how social relationships influence academic outcomes. Relationships with non-family adults is instrumental to a student's guidance through this time in life. Non-family adults can provide students with four kinds of support: emotional, informational, appraisal, and instrumental. Students who disengage from high school aren't necessarily missing love and support from family, but lack access to additional sources of support that can lead to a more promising future.

"Relationship poverty" as the report details, describes this lack of connections to mentors in a young person's life. Students who have gone through one or several adverse life experiences (ALEs), such as parenting a child, experiencing a major mental health issue, homelessness, or moving homes, can greatly contribute to the disconnect of students from school.

"485,000 young people still leave high school each year before earning a diploma, severely limiting their options for further education and sustainable employment"

Even with support from family, friends, and school, students who have gone through high levels of adversity are at risk of interrupted enrollment.  

Young people are calling on adults to more strategically keep students engaged. GradNation survey respondents overwhelmingly said they returned to school because of positive encouragement from mentors. Human connection is pivotal to keeping students engaged and encouraging students to return to school if they have left. This type of engagement must be intentional and for some cases, intensive. For young people most at risk, intensive, holistic outreach can help re-engage young people reporting 5 or more ALEs.

Schools will need to do more than provide advising or after-school programs for students. Through the recommendations of young people, GradNation advises schools pair students with an "Anchor" or adult mentor who can not only provide emotional and instrumental support for a student, but can act as a gateway and help illuminate an existing network of community support for students. Students surveyed for this study also stressed the importance of how establishing trust involves "being there no matter what," investing time, offering help without judgment, and empathy. These qualities are critical for relationship-building with all students.

How Blended Learning Can Help

It is now up to schools to take action - but that does not exempt the online education sector from taking part. The question is, can online education provide the kind of support students need to succeed? Here at Penn Foster, we strongly believe that blended learning environments can work to strategically intervene and affect social contexts for fostering the kind of caring and instrumental support that students are in severe need of. Here are several blended learning models that have fostered mentorship and webs of support for students:

Dropout Retrieval Programs: In order to persuade students who have discontinued their high school education to return, high school districts can implement alternative programs on their campus for students who need intensive mentoring. Also by using a blended learning model, students can learn on their own time, at their own pace, and receive strategic and intensive mentorship from a program coordinator who really cares about the student's well being and can direct them to greater opportunities for coordinated services. Polk County school district partnered with Penn Foster and to date has graduated over 800 former high school non-completers through the Fresh Start Program.

High School Completion Programs: Postsecondary institutions can implement high school completion programs on their campus to provide students who need high school credentials an alternative opportunity to earn what they need to be able to enroll into the college. By utilizing a blended learning model, in-classroom program coordinators reach out to students and deliver continued, consistent attention and motivation. Program coordinators, like at Dorsey Schools, act as the "Anchor" for students by providing the care and instrumental support they need, but also can guide them towards all of the resources available to them on campus.

Nonprofit Partnerships: Education providers can partner with nonprofit organizations like Job Corps and YouthBuild to deliver blended programs for students seeking a very different learning opportunity. Whether students are looking to earn their high school diploma or a career certificate, these environments can also nurture and provide students with intensive mentorship and connections to the community that can support students looking to learn and grow outside of the high school experience. Students can enjoy hands-on learning while also benefitting from in-class mentorship and support from peers with similar goals and aspirations.

Though intentional relationship-building can take time and patience, it is critical for the online community as well as for schools and community organizations across the nation to prioritize meaningful outreach to students in need - and to stick with these students, no matter what.


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