Dropout recovery schools: a safe haven, not a safe harbor

Cris Gulacy-Worrel

NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

The recent request by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) to apply for Ohio’s Drop Out Prevention and Recovery (DOPR) designation has shined a spotlight on this unique type of alternative school and has created many misconceptions surrounding what they do, the students they serve, and how they serve them.

Those of us who have dedicated our careers to providing safe, inclusive, high-quality learning environments for our most challenged students think these misconceptions should be identified and exposed. DOPR is a status for which schools must apply and is outlined in state law. The designation has existed for many years. Only programs that meet the components set forth by law are approved by the Department of Education. DOPR schools must meet specified academic as well as financial objectives set by the Department. The designation is not a shelter for charter schools to utilize as a protection against public accountability for student performance, nor are drop out recovery waivers intended to be leveraged by schools not specializing in this specific student population. The designation is meant to provide an alternative system by which to gauge the successes of schools serving nontraditional students—those who by virtue of their life circumstances and past educational attainment are fundamentally different from students served in traditional high schools. These students’ educational gains are difficult to measure by traditional report metrics.

DOPR schools are a vital component of Ohio’s education landscape and have had great success with students who historically have not been served well by traditional educational models. National statistics show that over 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year in the United States alone, which is about 7,000 a day or about one student every 26 seconds. These students often face innumerable barriers to obtaining their high school diploma. These obstacles include teen pregnancy, incarceration and other problems with the law, full-time employment in order to financially support their families, health problems, expulsion, and other personal reasons. Many of them are several years behind their grade level, creating added urgency as well as challenges for students and the schools serving them.

An abundance of research shows that without a high school diploma, students have greatly reduced chances of success, and the costs to society are great. High school dropouts in the U.S. commit about 75 percent of crimes and earn on average $200,000 less income over their lifetime than those who obtain their high school diploma. Dropout recovery schools provide the specialization and expertise necessary to assist students who have fallen far behind their peers and help prevent students from falling through the cracks and failing to reach their full potential.

The vast majority of Ohio’s DOPR schools are located in brick-and-mortar buildings and do not serve students exclusively online, which many dropout recovery leaders/educators feel greatly contributes to their success. Every child converted from dropout to recovery creates a net economic gain of at least $292,000 between additional wages earned and the costs of social and legal services saved, not to mention the significant improvement of quality of life. The benefit to society is overwhelmingly positive.

Dropout recovery high schools are the last line of defense in serving our state’s most challenged students. The positive outcomes that these students receive through dropout recovery programs must not be eclipsed by the recent request, nor should the designation be used solely to evade closure. That would dilute the good work that is being done by DOPR schools across the state of Ohio and nationally.

Cris Gulacy-Worrel currently serves as Vice President of National Expansion for Learn4Life Concept Charter Schools, a non-profit charter management organization that manages schools serving over 30,000 students in several states, including Ohio's Flex High School.