Early Warning System makes teachers part of dropout solution

By Jennifer Brookland

September 29, 2015

Like many teachers in India’s Bihar State, Manisha Kumari assumed that the fifth graders in her class who missed school were bad, lazy or unmotivated. Rahul was one of these students. He barely came to class at all. With so many absences, he was at risk of dropping out.

But teachers also saw Rahul from across the street, watching his classmates when they played outside. Manisha wondered if there was more to his story.

When Manisha’s school began implementing the USAID-funded School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program, she learned that there was.

The program activated an Early Warning System that allows teachers to use school records to identify and track students who showed warning signs of dropping out, then rally school and community support for them.

The program was actually a research program being carried out in four Asian countries—India, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Timor-Leste—intended to develop, test and evaluate the impact of interventions to prevent dropout.

The school dropout crisis is especially acute in India, where UNICEF reports that 11.9 million children ages 6 to 13 are not in school. In Bihar, the School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program found that 26 percent of children in fifth grade were not making it to the sixth.

Through the program’s training sessions, Manisha learned that boys in Bihar don’t just leave school due to lack of interest; instead they are often pulled out of school because their families urgently need them to make money. When she started using the program’s Early Warning System, Manisha saw that this was indeed the case for Rahul.

“With the help of the [School Dropout Prevention Pilot] program, we went deeper into the matter and found out what the child’s real problem was,” she says. Rahul was being kept from school to help out at his parents’ small shop across the street, where he was responsible for making the morning chai, sieving the samosas and washing cups and plates.

The Early Warning System tracks children’s absences because spotty attendance is linked to poor academic performance, which discourages children further from attending. These “ABCs:” attendance, behavior and course performance, are some of the strongest predictors of dropout.

With Rahul’s work commitment resulting in such abysmal attendance, Manisha says, “He was on the verge of dropping out, without a doubt.” But when she examined Rahul’s behavior, she saw something else. “I watched [Rahul] closely and saw that he was doing his work eagerly,” she says. In fact, Rahul wanted very much to stay in school.

Now, Manisha had the tools to intervene.

She went to visit Rahul’s mother and father and explained the importance of coming to school and staying for all of the classes. She suggested he could still help at the store, just not during school hours.

Over time, the visits worked. Rahul’s parents no longer keep him from his classes although he works in their shop before and after the school day. He says he is doing better and has an interest in Hindi, math and English. Rahul hopes to continue his studies and to one day become a policeman.

Other vulnerable fifth graders have improved attendance too, thanks in part to their teachers stepping in. At-risk students in Indian schools where the interventions were tested spent a total of 80,000 additional days in school.

Manisha says the School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program made her much more aware of the role teachers can play in students’ lives—and motivated to do more. She now strives, as she learned from her training, to bring fun and enjoyment into her classroom to engage children who are at risk of dropping out.

As they track at-risk students’ progress to watch for warning signs, she and her colleagues discuss among themselves how they can reach those like Rahul who are faltering.

She’s learned through her experience with Rahul that she has the ability, and the responsibility, to reach out. And she knows her efforts will make a difference. “If the child wants to do something, then anything is possible,” says Manisha. “He just needs a little bit of our help.”

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