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High School Dropout Potential Could Be Determined In Middle School: Frontline Report

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Watch Middle School Moment on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.


A report by PBS's Frontline examines the work of Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz, who suggests there is a key period in middle school that determines whether a student will eventually drop out.

Balfanz’s team analyzed data from high poverty schools, where at least 40 percent of students qualify for government-subsidized lunch. They identified a series of indicators that can predict how likely a student is to drop out of high school if nothing is done to intervene.

According to Balfanz’s research, if a sixth grader in a high poverty school attends school less than 80 percent of the time, fails math or English, or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, there is a 75 percent chance he or she will drop out of high school.

Frontline profiled one school that has adopted Balfanz’s system. Every week at Middle School 244 in the Bronx, statistics concerning absences, behavior and grades are collected and reviewed by a team of counselors and teachers. Students most in need are flagged, and their assigned counselor organizations an intervention.

Since Middle School 244 embraced Balfanz’s research, it has reallocated its resources -- hiring fewer school aides, redistributing responsibilities among the teachers and hiring an additional counselor. There is now an adult assigned to help every at-risk student.

Findings by a Harvard study suggest that middle school might not be the best option for young teens, and that they might be better suited for a K-8 environment. Researchers analyzed data for all third through 10th grade students in Florida public schools from 2001-09, which amounted to over 450,000 students. They found that compared with students who attended K-8 schools, middle school students performed worse on math and English language arts in high school, and were more likely to drop out.

Researchers were uncertain as to what specifically about the transition to middle school and middle school environment causes student achievement to plummet.

Hoping to combat the trend that contributes to more than 1 million students failing to finish high school every year, the Mercy Education Project’s Emerging Leaders program in Detroit exposes 33 sixth- to eighth-grade girls to the ins and outs of college life every summer during the month of July.

The girls are encouraged to set specific and measurable goals for middle school, high school and college, and to identify a career interest and understand how their academic work is crucial to the pursuit of said career.

Watch the Frontline report above.

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