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In Texas, Thousands Of Students Are Dropping Out As Early As Middle School

Stella M. Chávez
Tracie May, a college and career readiness coach, talks to students Jade Mayweather, 13, and Amaya Bean, 14, at Leonard Middle School in Fort Worth.

A new report out says in the 2014-2015 school year, 8 percent of Texas students who dropped out did so in the seventh or eighth grades. The Fort Worth school district is taking several measures to prevent students from dropping out before high school and keep them on the path to graduation.

'I thought I would pass'

For Jade Mayweather, problems at school started at a young age.

“I used to get in trouble a lot, sixth and seventh-grade year. Sometimes, I used to skip school,” Jade said. “I used to get kicked out of class. I used to, like, [not] come to school at all, like absent a lot.”

Not yet a teenager, Jade was on the verge of becoming another statistic: a middle school dropout.

“I didn’t, like, really think it was that important to, like, come to school,” Jade said. “Because I thought I would pass anyway, but...”

But Jade got a warning from a college and career readiness coach at Leonard Middle School. Tracie May told Jade if she didn’t start going to class and get better grades, she wouldn’t pass.

Jade turned things around. She’s now an eighth grader and you’ll often find her at the Go Center inside Leonard Middle School. It’s a classroom decorated with colorful college pennants and posters with scholarship and career information. The center has computers and educational games. May said it’s quickly become a popular place.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News

'Let's go to the College Lady' 

“Students began to realize and understand, ‘Ok, let’s go to the College Lady’, or they go for scholarships,” May said. “They don’t all come for scholarships, they don’t all come to look at jobs, but sometimes the activities that we do [are] geared towards college and career readiness, so they’ll come in just to play the board game College Ready.”

The Fort Worth school district has Go Centers in 11 middle schools and two sixth grade centers. There’s also one in every high school and 11 of those are staffed with a college and career readiness coach.

Middle school is a critical time in a student’s life, according to Chandra Villanueva, who authored the report “Stuck in the Middle Grades” for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities.

She says there’s been a lot of focus on high school, and recently, educators have been making a big push for pre-kindergarten. Middle school has kind of gotten lost in these discussions.

Middle school years are critical

Villanueva says Texas needs to pay closer attention to the middle grades.

“Kids are dropping out of school before they even hit high school,” Villanueva said. “I think that was a little shocking for pretty much everyone who’s reviewed this report.”

Villanueva says the middle school years are critical years. Kids are going through a lot – they’re in a new school, their hormones are changing and some have difficult home lives.

In Texas, more than 2,500 students dropped out of middle school during the 2014-15 school year. That’s about 8 percent of the total number of kids who dropped out that year.

“So we’re actually losing a very large number of kids in these earlier grades and I think that just hasn’t really been noticed,” Villanueva said.

In the Fort Worth district, of the 826 kids who dropped out during a recent school year, 125 of them -- or about 15 percent – were in seventh or eighth grade, according to district and state data.

'It's a community issue'

Christopher Riddick, director of student engagement and school completion for the district, said his staff is working to keep kids in school.

Every middle school, for example, has a mental health professional on campus. The district also contacts a student’s family when trouble arises. A problem like truancy, he said, isn’t just a district issue.

In Texas, more than 2,500 students dropped out of middle school during the 2014-15 school year.

“It’s a community issue and we do a lot of work in reaching out to families to let them know the attendance of their students in the form of warning letters, conferences with students, student attendance review teams, to look at trying to resolve some of the reasons for the child moving towards dropping out of school,” Riddick said.

The district also has family resource centers and conducts home visits. Getting the community involved and teaming up students with mentors are recommendations the Center for Public Policy Priorities makes in its report.

Villanueva, the report’s author, said the state needs to do more to help middle schoolers. State lawmakers have already introduced a couple of bills this session that would study the dropout problem in Texas.

“So I think it’s about identifying the services that kids need and making sure that they’re getting what they need at the right times before they drop out,” she said.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities also said the state should create a pilot program at campuses where students are struggling academically. The so-called early warning data system would identify kids who are having trouble.

And finally, the group said the state needs to study how to get kids who drop out back in school.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News

Back at the Go Center at Leonard Middle School in Fort Worth, May talks to Jade and a classmate about their assignment.

Jade said eighth grade’s been different for her. For examples, she’s showing up for class.

“I don’t get in trouble no more…as much,” Jade said. And…like, I actually, like, care about school, so I guess that’s good.”

Just last year, Jade was close to dropping out. Now, after some intervention at her middle school, she said she wants to go to college.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.