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Beating the Odds: DC’s “Recovery” Students Describe Their Remarkable Journeys

Graduates throwing their caps in the air during a sunset.

Photo by Baim Hanif

Headshot Scott JoftusScott Joftus

Posted October 30, 2015

Tag IconEducation Reform, Educaton


“Trying to walk down an escalator going up.” This is how an 18-year old Washington, DC student described his high school career that culminated this past spring—despite the odds—with him receiving his diploma. His was one of 29 high school seniors who spoke to C&J’s Marian Robinson (also an assistant professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development).

These 29 graduating seniors had one thing in common—they entered ninth grade looking statistically identical to students who would ultimately drop out but ended up “recovering” and graduating from high school on time. With support from Raise DC, C&J conducted focus groups with these students to learn about their stories. The results are contained in the new report From Off Track to Diploma: Understanding the Educational Path of Washington, DC, Recovery Students (the report can be downloaded for free from Raise DC’s website here).

The stories told by these remarkable young people were funny, heartbreaking, heartfelt, and inspiring. Students told about patterns of low academic engagement—reflected in poor grades, disengagement during class, and excessive absences—tracing back to their middle school years. Many were promoted despite failing grades. Negative social activities and difficult family dynamics dominated student attention both in and out of school.

For many, the situation worsened as they entered high school: They reported that the academic expectations and increased responsibilities of high school were disorienting and acknowledged that they entered high school without understanding the gatekeeping roles of course credits, GPA, and attendance. The subject orientation, high standards, and fast pace of high schools added to their difficulties. Finally, social distractions expanded and intensified in high school, now resulting in real consequences that stood in the way of graduation.

The report presents six key reasons recovery students got back on track to graduation. Students pinpointed tipping-point events that sparked their commitment to change, including undergoing self-reflection triggered by seeing failing grades, experiencing concrete consequences of negative behavior, and becoming increasingly sensitive to family members’ concerns for their futures.

Thanks to DC’s comprehensive school choice program (which also results in student mobility and school tumult as they accommodate students in the middle of the year), students—many of whom changed schools more than once during their four years—found their “right” schools that met their needs or offered “fresh starts.” At their graduating schools, students felt anchored by the development of positive adult relationships and school cultures that offered the structures to help students imagine, plan for, and work toward a future. They thrived in schools that embraced a practice of multiple chances for success through encouragement to revise class work, to frequently monitor their grades, and to utilize credit recovery resources.

Once on the path to graduation, students felt—and were—transformed. As one student told C&J’s Dr. Robinson:

I remember the moment when I knew like I was actually going to make it. It was like when I first came here, and I got my first honor roll for my whole high school career. I was just like shocked. I was so surprised by myself that I didn’t even … I was so used to just barely making it. So when I made that I was just like, “Well, I could do anything now.” Now I just kept on getting honor roll. So, yeah … That’s when I knew I was going to make it.

How do we help more students at risk of dropping out to recover? We do know a lot about works (see here, for example, for improved transitions to ninth grade). But we wanted to maintain student voices, and they made it clear that there is no secret sauce. What is clear, however, is that some students just need time to mature with the supports of caring (and very patient) adults in the school. Ideally, these adults should have a lot of information and data about students and ways to easily access services such as health, legal, counseling, and economic services. It helps if schools empower disengaged students to track their own academic progress, revise assignments, and access needed credits. It’s also clear that middle schools are not serving these students well and need to change by becoming more engaging, rigorous, supportive, and aligned with the high school (or schools) that most of their students will attend.

None of these findings are unique. What is unique is the way in which Dr. Robinson gives voice to those who are too frequently ignored in Washington, DC’s policy circles—the students themselves.

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