Positive Deviance: Combatting High School Dropouts

Positive Deviance: Combatting High School Dropouts

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MERCED, Calif.—Merced High School senior Brianna Dartas never considered herself a role model.

In fact, the 17-year-old’s life story overlaps the experiences of many a high school dropout.

Dartas, who was raised by a single mom, worked part time to help the family. They were poor and lived in a tough neighborhood known for gangs and crime. Many of her peers from the same background have already dropped out of school, but she did not give up. Dartas, of Native American and Latino descent, will be graduating this year and she plans to attend college.

“I want a white-collar job,” said Dartas, adding that setting specific goals and holding oneself accountable are the keys to success. “There is no excuse; we make our decisions.”

The young woman singled out her grandmother as a mentor who instilled in her the value of education.

“I used my grandma as a rock for not dropping out,” said Dartas, adding that her grandmother was the driving force behind her desire to be the first one in her family to graduate from college. That desire to keep herself and her friends in school inspired her to join a new program at her high school.

Called Positive Deviance (PD), the innovative program started two years ago at Merced High to tap the experiences of students like Dartas, who keep themselves out of trouble and excel at school despite setbacks in their lives. One aim of the program is that their peers will learn from them, perhaps reducing the school's high dropout rate as a bonus.

According to the California Department of Education data site, 831 students entered Merced High in ninth grade in 2005-2006. But only 459 students exited the school with diplomas in 2008-2009. That means about half of the students who entered Merced High could not make it to graduation. That proportion is lower than the county’s average and lowest among the high schools in the Merced Union High School District.

Instead of approaching the problem in a traditional way – looking at students who drop out of school -- the program relies on outliers, or the exceptions. Those are the outstanding students who stay in school and thrive despite such social factors as poverty, family problems, crime and gangs.

“It’s like looking at the flip side of a coin,” said Mark Munger, senior associate of the Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts University in Boston. An advisor for the school's pilot program, Munger said he regularly visits the school to provide guidance and advice to teachers.

Munger described the program's two-pronged approach. The first step is tapping into the knowledge of the community outliers, who somehow come up with the solutions to problems. Second is to share those solutions with the rest of the community and grow as a whole. In this case, Munger said, the “outliers” are outstanding students like Dartas, and the school is the community.

Merced High is the first anywhere to apply this idea to curbing the dropout rate. This is thanks to veteran math teacher Sheila A. Whitley, who applied for the grant that funds the PD program after witnessing the alarming dropout rate at the school.

African-American and Latino students are more likely to drop out, as well as Hmong and Vietnamese girls, because they often shoulder the burden of caring for family members, causing them to fall behind on their studies. Whitley said she believes the dropout rate is even higher today due to the recession.

Merced was hit hard by the foreclosure crises. The unemployment rate is around 20 percent, and more than three-quarters of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Merced High has a very diverse student body: More than half of students are Hispanic, one- fifth are white, another fifth are Asian and fewer than 10 percent are black. Almost a tenth of the student population are English learners. For most, Spanish or Hmong is their first language.

Each year, teachers in the program recruit students who are flagged as either “at-risks” or “positives.”

“At-risks” describe students showing such danger signs as failing grades, low attendance and involvement in gang-related activities. "Positives” describe those doing well on their homework and earning good grades despite their disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, these groupings merely serve as guidelines to find students who can benefit most from the program. After the program starts, the labels disappear because some at-risk youth can very well become “positive” students.

That's what happened to Merced High senior Gary Womack. Now in the “positive” pool, representing the school for speech contests and holding on a 3.80 G.P.A., he’ll head to the University of California, Davis, next fall, majoring in Food Science and Business. Only two years ago, Womack was headed down the wrong path.

Womack was raised by a single mother and spent part of his early childhood in foster care. In his freshman year, he frequently committed thefts, used drugs and was involved in petty crimes. In his sophomore year, he was adopted by his friend’s parents, who have helped restore stability to his life.

Womack said he would like to help others going through similar situations. He believes the student-to-student conversation format of the program allows him to make positive impacts on others effectively with his real-life experiences. “I learned it the hard way,” he said. “I am helping other students because I have been through all that. ”

Currently, participants in the program meet every other week during lunchtime. Students come up with their own topics of discussion and brainstorm solutions. They cover a wide range of school related issues, from homework and tardiness to cell phone use on campus and the effects of budget cuts. Although it is a teacher-driven program, teachers act only as facilitators of these conversations.

“Teacher often sits on a power spot,” said Womack, while students speak at the same level and analyze issues from the same perspective. So impacts are more direct and it's easier to show what is possible.

Ruben Vargas Rosas, a freshman at Merced High, said he has always valued education, but his determination to finish high school was reinforced after listening to others in the group who were less fortunate and put in bigger effort to stay in school. He said that kind of maturity helped him to avoid a confrontation the other day.

Ruben almost got into a fight with a senior, who cursed at him and called him “weak.” But Rosas made a smart choice and walked away.

“I asked myself, ‘Why should I fight? To be like him? To be at his level?’” said Rosas. “No, I want to succeed in school. I’d rather not fight and be a better person,” he said.

Meanwhile, teachers also learn more about their students through the PD program. One of the program’s founding teachers, Katina Austin, realized that opening conversations directly with students about the risk of dropping out is difficult because many feel the topic is irrelevant while they are in school. Austin found it worked better to begin a conversation about issues leading to dropping out, such as problems with homework and studying.

Other teachers said they learn about various everyday challenges that affect students’ school performance. For example, students said they often feel obligated to stop and socialize with others in front of their lockers, because they don’t want to be considered rude among their peers, even if they risk being late for class. Students also shared that they are unable to finish homework because they didn’t have money to buy paper and pens. Teachers said the information allows them to know where to offer help.

However, not every teacher sees the program as effective.

According to an online survey of 66 teachers conducted last spring, slightly more than a third believed that the program could create positive changes at the school. The survey was conducted on behalf of the California Teacher Association Institute for Teaching (CTA-IFT), the administrator of the $100,000 grant Merced High received from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Whitley said it may be too early to tell, as the pilot just started to gain momentum, even though the number of students participating has doubled to 70 in the last two years. That number is relatively small compared to the school's 2,700 student population. However, Whitley said she has learned from other teachers that some participants are already showing positive behaviors in the classroom, such as showing up for classes and handing in their homework more frequently.

Whitley said she’d like to see more students benefitting from the program, but fears that the grant will run out too soon. She said she would continue to fundraise for the program, but she expressed doubt that the school will fund the program while it's under the shadow of current budget cuts.