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Social Networking To Save At-Risk Students

Maria Brennan has become pretty proficient at tracking down Everett School District students who are on the verge of dropping out. She's even snagged a few that have already crossed the line and helped them back into positive territory. As graduation success coordinator for Everett School District in Everett, WA, Brennan has used a combination of traditional methods (reaching out directly to the students and their families by phone, for example) and high-tech approaches to help improve graduation rates for the district's four high schools.

"I work on all of the dropouts and the students who are working towards their GEDs," said Brennan, whose current position was created by the district in February and funded through a federal grant designed to help the 2,000 United States high schools that have the highest dropout rates. "My goal is to get all of the students to get diplomas, namely because GEDs just don't hold the same weight."

Brennan's job involves tracking down individual students and convincing them of the value of finishing school and earning a diploma. Sounds simple enough, right? Hardly. Dig a little deeper into her daily tasks, and you find a dedicated staffer who uses all of the tools at her avail to help boost the graduation rates at Cascade High School, Everett High School, Henry M. Jackson High School and Sequoia High School.

Each of the high schools also has an individual "on-time graduation coordinator" for those students still enrolled in school. Through their efforts and other initiatives implemented by the district, the high schools' overall graduation rates improved from 53 percent in 2003 to 90 percent in 2009. Brennan said she was brought on board to help improve those rates even further.

Brennan, who has talked about 80 percent of her contacts into signing up for programs that will successfully lead to a diploma, said she begins by poring over the district's student database, which includes all contact information associated with a specific student identification number. "That is just the first layer," said Brennan, "and I use it to reach out to them via phone." To the calling list, Brennan said she also adds aunts, uncles, and other family members who might be able to connect her to the student in question.

When the phone calls don't pan out, she said, Brennan goes where the average teenager can be found these days: online. Using an alias (in order to avoid "spooking" dropouts who might be embarrassed or afraid to discuss the situation with a member of the school staff), she has set up shop on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites.

Brennan said she searches through the sites' membership databases by student name and/or nickname. When that doesn't work, she said, she searches on other students' "friends lists" to cross-reference and find a more direct route to the individual students in need of graduation assistance. She said she sends direct messages to the students in question and then reveals her identity and intentions when the recipients write back to her.

"Overall, I'd say maybe two students total have been unreceptive to my Facebook and MySpace contacts," said Brennan. "The rest are very open to the contacts, and many of them love the fact that I reached out to them that way." She said she's had the most success on MySpace, as opposed to Facebook, and has since put more effort into using the former.

Once Brennan creates the connection with the student, she said, she talks to them about why a GED isn't the same as a high school diploma. "I tell them that a GED is good, but it won't get you as far as a diploma will," said Brennan, "and explain that you can't even get into the military with a GED." She said she also highlights the various programs available to students (through the local community college, for example) who want to earn their diplomas.

"I let them know about options that they'd never even heard of," said Brennan, adding that she then reviews and evaluates each student's transcript to see which core classes and electives have been covered and which need to be taken in order to graduate. "We sit down together and develop a timeline and game plan for each student." If the candidate hasn't had much success in the traditional high school classroom setting, she said, Brennan suggests online learning and/or home schooling options.

To create a sense of urgency for the students, Brennan said she reminds them that Everett School District is only responsible for their education until they reach 21 years of age. "After 21, it's going to cost them money," said Brennan, "so I encourage the students to do this while they are under our watch."

Brennan, who reports on her progress every week, said she usually attempts 20 contacts before giving up on a particular student. "If they haven't called me, e-mailed, or messaged after 20, then it's time to move on," said Brennan, adding she sees social networking as an effective, non-intrusive way to create a rapport with the students that she's trying to help.

"Very rarely do they not get back to me when I write to them," said Brennan, whose position expires in August 2010 but is currently being considered for a more permanent status. To other schools looking to use technology as a graduation rate booster, Brennan said, the key is to catch the students (via Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter messaging and correspondence, for example) while they're still in school, rather than waiting until they formally drop out. "Once they're gone," she said, "it's a lot harder to get them back in."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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