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Principal Leadership Magazine, Vol. 4, Number 5, February 2004

Counseling 101 Column

Promoting School Completion

By recognizing the factors that cause students to become disengaged from school, principals can create strategies that decrease the likelihood that students will drop out.

By Amanda Blount Morse, Amy R. Anderson, Sandra L. Christenson, and Camilla A. Lehr

Amanda Blount Morse and Amy R. Anderson are doctoral candidates, Sandra L. Christenson is the director of the School Psychology Program, and Camilla A. Lehr is a research associate with the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. This column was produced in cooperation with the National Association of School Psychologists.

Graduating from high school is more important today than ever before in our nation's history. Our increasingly high technological society requires that workers have at least a high school diploma and, more often than not, additional years of education or training to earn a living wage. Often, individuals who do not complete high school experience a lifetime of limited income and opportunities. Yet thousands of American youth drop out of school. Nationally, only 86% of students complete high school, a statistic largely unchanged since 1990 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).

Society and schools also suffer consequences when students drop out. The costs to society in terms of lost tax revenue and the expense of government assistance programs for employment, housing, medical care, and incarceration are staggering. Further, the trend in education in recent years has been one of increased accountability with a focus on student outcomes. Although student achievement is the most common accountability indicator, school-level dropout rates and graduation rates are also being used as measures of school effectiveness.

The Process of Dropping Out

Successful school completion is dependent on student engagement. There is a great deal of evidence that dropping out of school is a process of disengagement from school and learning that occurs over many years, often beginning early in elementary school (Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, & Godber, 2001). This process can be described in terms of student participation, performance, and identification with school. Research supports the intuitive expectation that participation in school (e.g., attending school and classes, completing schoolwork, and participating in cocurricular activities) leads to positive school performance. Students who attend school and complete their assigned schoolwork tend to pass their classes. Positive school performance leads to positive identification with school-students feel like they belong in school and share common values with other students and teachers.

In contrast, students who are at risk of dropping out show signs of disengaging from school-they miss classes, do not complete schoolwork, get low grades, and engage in disruptive behavior. In addition, students who are at-risk for dropping out often express disinterest in school and have low expectations of success.

Although the time that students are academically engaged is important, student engagement with school and learning is much broader, encompassing student behavior (e.g., attendance, participation); cognition (e.g., value of education, relevance to future, self-regulation); and psychological experiences (e.g., a feeling of belonging at school and relationships with teachers and peers). Viewed in this context, student engagement becomes a multifaceted construct. When students experience these multiple forms of engagement, the likelihood that they will complete school increases.

School factors. Numerous studies have shown that student engagement in school decreases significantly for many students as they progress through school (Anderman & Midgley, 1998). By the time these students reach the middle level, a lack of interest in schoolwork becomes increasingly evident. By high school, some students have become so disengaged from educational values and pursuits that they leave school.

There are many reasons why students become less engaged in school as they grow older; consequently, a student's decision to drop out often involves not one primary reason but a multitude of factors that involve the school and home and family environments (Kortering & Braziel, 1999). Recognizing both school-centered factors (e.g., poor relationships with teachers or academic difficulties) and external factors (e.g., taking care of siblings or working) that influence student engagement can help educators and administrators implement practices and policies that will increase the holding power of schools and keep youth in school. (See figure 1).

School factors that fuel students' sense of alienation and failure contribute to disengagement. A lack of connection to teachers or other staff members; an impersonal or intolerant school environment; bullying and harassment; social isolation; and not being involved in cocurricular activities are all factors that can reinforce a student's dislike and distrust of school. Similarly, academic and behavior problems can make students' feel like a failure and at odds with the system, in essence helping to push a student away from school.

Home factors. The home environment is also an important influence on school engagement and can be a significant protective factor. Youth whose families are more involved with their schooling are more likely to achieve in school, engage in school activities, and have higher educational expectations (McNeal, 1999). Research has documented several statistically significant correlates of school completion including the presence of study aids, high educational expectations and aspirations, and parental monitoring and participation (Rumberger, 1995).

Consistency between the expectations of home and school is also an important ingredient to school completion. Students are likely to become confused about how they should behave and about what is expected of them if schools and families have different rules and expectations. This confusion, brought about by discontinuity in the messages students receive from home and school, may put students at risk for school performance problems and dropping out. School administrators and teachers can promote student engagement and success by continually interacting with families about issues related to learning and engagement and developing common messages about the value of education.

Promoting Student Engagement at School

There is no one factor within the school context that promotes or prevents student engagement. School administrators and staff members must be attentive not only to teaching methods and the formal curriculum but also to the larger context of the school culture and disciplinary procedures; grouping practices; relationships between students, teachers, administrators, and parents; the physical structure of the school; and discipline and recognition policies and procedures (Stipek, 1996; Yair, 2000). One of the most important activities is to systematically monitor students for the warning signs of disengagement-such as poor attendance, poor academic performance, behavior problems, little participation in the school environment, isolation from peers, and insufficient credits earned toward graduation-and to follow up with students who are showing these early signs of dropping out.

Because schools have varying needs and resources, there is no one "right" intervention to enhance student engagement. However, a variety of strategies and characteristics associated with increased student success have been identified and can be applied to schools to maximize student engagement.

Transitions Need Care

Fostering student engagement at school and with learning is especially important during transitions between schools (e.g., middle school to high school). Research has shown that normative school transitions can be a particularly stressful time for youth and may result in educational disengagement and subsequent withdrawal from school (Felner et al., 1993; Rumberger, 1995). Factors contributing to increased vulnerability during transitions include increased expectations for functioning independently, increased complexity of the school environment, and large numbers of new and unfamiliar peers.

Principals play an important role in promoting school policies and practices that provide support, resources, and information to students who are at risk of experiencing difficulties. Techniques that have been used to create more supportive school environments and enhance student engagement have included creating small learning environments to provide more consistency in peers, teachers, and space (e.g., organize classrooms for teams in close proximity) (Felner et al., 1993).

Specific strategies may include assigning students to small cohort groups within a larger grade level. These student cohorts remain together for homeroom as well as core classes (i.e., mathematics, English) and help to create a sense of community. The role of homeroom teachers can also be restructured to include more of an advisory or guidance component. Homeroom teachers may be given responsibility for tracking attendance, following up with parents about any absences, and increasing communication between home and school. New students can be assigned to older peers who act as mentors and help to allay fears or answer questions about school procedures and the daily routine.

In addition, implementing welcoming activities (e.g., picnic, orientation, team building activities, parent meetings) at the beginning of the school year characterizes schools as supportive environments. Some schools even have programs in place where staff members make brief home visits before school starts to help establish connections with students and their families.

The serious consequences associated with dropping out, the increased importance of high school and postsecondary education, and the need to hold schools accountable for student success point to the fact that successful school completion is more important than ever. However, if we engage students on all levels with school and learning, monitor student performance, follow-up with students and families when warning signs of disengagement emerge, and focus on successful school completion for all students, it is possible to positively influence students toward the successful completion of school. PL


Figure 1: Why Students Drop Out

Students drop out of school for a variety of reasons. For example, post-hoc research examining the reasons why students drop out of school indicates the existence of push and pull effects in many schools (Jordan, McPartland, & Lara, 1999). Students who drop out most often cite push factors as reasons for leaving school.

Push effects include situations or experiences within the school environment that heighten students' feelings of alienation and failure, such as: 

Pull effects consist of external factors that weaken and distract from the importance of school completion such as:

Monitoring School Engagement

Protective factors

Warning signs of disengagement

A Model for School Engagement

Check & Connect, a model of sustained intervention used to enhance and maintain students' engagement with school, helps students who are at risk of dropping out succeed in school. A data-driven approach that is grounded in research on resiliency and home-school collaboration, the Check & Connect model has been applied across diverse school settings (e.g., urban and suburban; grades K-12; students with and without disabilities) to increase student engagement and enhance students' social and academic competencies..

Key features. Check & Connect is driven by a monitor-a cross between a mentor, an advocate, and a service coordinator-whose primary goal is to keep education a salient issue for disengaged students, their teachers, and their family members. Check & Connect is structured to maximize personal contact and build trusting relationships between students, families, and school staff members. Student levels of engagement (i.e., attendance, grades, and suspensions) are "checked" regularly and used to guide monitors' efforts to increase and maintain students' "connection" with the school. The strategies used by monitors to enhance and maintain student engagement with school include:

In addition, monitors individualize interaction with students and their families to implement specific interventions that meet students' needs. A day in the life of a Check & Connect monitor may include placing wake-up calls to students, meeting with teachers to track students' progress, problem solving with students around issues of concern, or following up on tutoring services for a particular student.

Effectiveness. Check & Connect was first implemented in Minneapolis with middle school students who had learning and behavioral disabilities. Findings from this initial project indicated that students who participated in Check & Connect for three years were more likely to be enrolled in school and earn credits toward graduation, as well as to stay in school and complete class assignment (Sinclair Christenson, Evolo, & Hurley, 1998). For more information about Check & Connect, please visit

Copyright 2004 National Association of Secondary School Principals. Produced in cooperation with the NASP.