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Effective counseling strategies for supporting long-term suspended students.

Long-term suspended (LTS) students are barred from the school system for lengthy periods, leaving them at risk of academic failure and vulnerable from lack of services. A program in a North Carolina public school system provided counselors to work with each LTS student. Outcome data were analyzed to determine the effectiveness of counseling services offered during student suspensions and after students reentered school. Strategies facilitating student reenrollment in school are identified.

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Long-term suspended (LTS) students are barred from the school system for lengthy periods--up to 1 year--leaving them at risk of lagging academically, as well as vulnerable from lack of services (Civil Rights Project at Harvard University & the Advancement Project, 2000). Researchers have found that long-term suspensions often precede downward spirals that lead students to drop out of school (Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986; Jordan, Lara, & McPartland, 1994; Skiba & Peterson, 1999; Wheelock & Dorman, 1998). Additional research has suggested that assigning counselors to assist LTS students during their suspensions might increase reenrollment and reduce recidivism (Smith, 1995). Based on this research, Effective Alternative Strategies (EAS), a pilot program of a large school district in North Carolina, was funded with a 3-year federal grant to attempt to reduce recidivism and dropout rates of LTS students by providing additional counseling services specifically for this population.

In 2000, school system administrators developed and implemented the EAS program to support LTS students during their suspensions, help them understand their rights and alternatives, and facilitate their return to school. Although the program also supported alternative schools and programs for at-risk students, its main thrust was case-managing LTS students.

Six counselors, funded by the grant, acted as case managers for LTS students while they were suspended. The program took place in school years 2000-01 (Year 1), 2001-02 (Year 2), and 2002-03 (Year 3). Data from the program's evaluation provided valuable insight on what these counselors learned while providing services to students, namely, what strategies led to the best outcomes. Evaluators and counselors also discovered what did not work, which helped counselors adjust strategies to improve outcomes during the 3 years of the program. Evaluators used quantitative and qualitative data to identify best practices as well as obstacles that deterred students from receiving counseling services.

Next, we examine the case managers' counseling methods and lessons learned in their attempts to help LTS students return to school and succeed academically. The data used in this evaluation were drawn from public school records and information gathered on four cohorts of LTS students in a large school district in North Carolina. The four cohorts were students long-term suspended and case-managed during the 3 years of the grant and those long-term suspended in school year 1999-2000 (baseline cohort from the year before the EAS program began).

PARTICIPANTS

There were 502 students in the Year 1 cohort. Of these students, approximately one third were ninth graders and about three fourths were male. About half (295) were African American, a third (172) were Caucasian, and about 5% (23) were Hispanic. About a fourth were in special education programs (including 4% who were gifted), and about half lived with single parents. The greatest percentages of primary violations that led to LTS were for fighting (26%) and for using drugs and alcohol (25%).

Of the 502 students who were case-managed in Year 1, data for the 415 students who had either reenrolled or dropped out of school on September 20, 2001 (the beginning of Year 2), were analyzed to determine whether certain counseling services were more likely to result in students reenrolling, and whether any group benefited more from the services. (The remaining 87 students from the Year 1 cohort were not included in these analyses because they had either transferred to another school system or educational program, earned a GED, completed the grade in which they were enrolled, or planned to return but had not yet done so, for such reasons as receiving a 365-day suspension that had not ended or being incarcerated or hospitalized.)

INTERVENTION

The six counselors performed a myriad of tasks, including escorting students to court hearings, working with probation officers, helping with paperwork required for enrolling in alternative educational programs, providing information about services for siblings (via United Way literature), holding training seminars for parents and families, and putting families in touch with community resources. When students were able to reenroll in the school system, the counselors informed families about the reenrollment process, helped students obtain grade transcripts and other documentation, supported families as they reenrolled their children in school, and worked with appropriate school counselors to ensure the students received continued support after they returned to school. The counselors also provided individual counseling to nearly half the students.

ANALYSES

We compared quantitative and qualitative data captured during Year 1 to data from the baseline year, and we also tracked changes in year to year data as the evaluation progressed. We tested all outcomes for individual grade levels, which revealed that best practices remained the same across grade levels; that is, strategies and services that worked best for 7th graders also worked best for 12th graders.

We performed chi-square tests and analyses of variance on quantitative data and used descriptive statistics to reach conclusions about the effects of counseling services administered to LTS students. We reported findings for statistically significant results, using a significance level of .01, although other statistically nonsignificant trends were observed.

RESULTS

The counselors revised their intervention strategies as they learned which strategies were most successful and which were not working. Consequently, analyses of Year 1 data showed a significant decline in recidivism rates for LTS students. By the end of Year 2, only 8% of the case-managed students from the Year 1 cohort (of 415 students who had reenrolled) were long-term suspended again. This compares with 26% of the LTS students from the baseline year who reenrolled and were subsequently long-term suspended in Year 1.

At the beginning of Year 2, 72% of students from the Year 1 cohort had reenrolled, compared to 66% of LTS students from a comparable cohort from the baseline year--an indicator that the program helped students return to school. This percentage also served as a reference point for identifying successful program factors: If all of the services or factors we examined had equal weight, then we could expect to see 72% of any subgroup (e.g., females from single-parent families) reenrolling as a result of receiving any service (e.g., more than five contacts from counselors). Using this 72% figure as a benchmark, we identified a number of successful program factors. The following factors were statistically significant at p < .01.

10 or More Contacts

After Year l, the counselors discovered that 85% of students who received 10 or more contacts reenrolled, versus 69% of the students with fewer than 10 contacts. After 10 contacts, the reenrollment rate was stable and did not increase with more contacts. Analyses showed no difference in this outcome for the different counselors or types of contact (e.g., one-on-one contact vs. contact with many parents and students at a workshop). Because of these positive results, counselors increased their efforts to ensure that all students were contacted in Year 2, raising the number of LTS students and their families contacted from 88% in Year 1 to 97% in Year 2.

Because the type of contact the counselors made with families did not appear to be as important as simply frequent contact, the counselors kept making contacts even if they were not seeing results at first. Also, they made workshops a higher priority in Year 2 to reach many families at one time. They held more workshops, and held them in more convenient locations and at various times, thus increasing attendance substantially.

Enrollment in an Educational Setting

Students were more likely to reenroll if they were placed in an educational setting during their suspension, no matter how late in the year the suspension occurred. In fact, 82% of students who were placed in some kind of educational setting during their suspensions reenrolled, versus 64% of those who were not enrolled in an educational setting. Enrollment in an educational setting while suspended had the same effect on Caucasian and African American students. Although Caucasian and African American LTS students were equally likely to reenroll in school if they attended alternative educational settings during their suspensions, a greater percentage of African American students enrolled in structured educational settings while suspended (71% vs. 59% of Caucasian American students). Consequently, a greater percentage of African American students reenrolled in school instead of dropping out.

Students suspended late in the year (after 60 days of school had passed) were more likely to reenroll than those suspended in the first part of the school year. Students suspended after 60 days of school had passed had a higher-than-expected reenrollment rate (76%) than students suspended before 60 school days had passed (62%).

Students placed in an educational institution had a lower-than-expected dropout rate, regardless of suspension length. Reenrollment rates for the combinations of length of suspension and alternative placement were as follows: 83% for students in an educational setting with shorter suspensions, and 47% for students not in an educational setting with longer suspensions. Students who stayed in some kind of educational setting and who had shorter suspensions were much more likely to return to school.

Data for the 502 students in Year 1 showed that about 57% of LTS students suspended near the end of the year (after April) received educational instruction, participated in a behavior modification program, or were employed at the time the data were collected. This compares with 70% of students long-term suspended before April who were in such programs or settings. This difference in percentage may reflect the belief that students were less likely to benefit from alternative placement when little time was left in the school year, resulting in fewer students enrolling in alternative settings. One consequence of this was that students who were not enrolled anywhere did not have the opportunity to take state-mandated end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. Results of these tests often are required for reenrollment. After the results of Year 1 were shared, students were encouraged to enroll in an educational setting regardless of the time of year.

Returning to the Same School

Because students have difficulty making transitions to new settings, students were more likely to reenroll and stay in school if they returned to the same school from which they had been suspended. Nearly all (91%) LTS students who could return to their previous school reenrolled, versus 62% of those who would have returned to a different school. LTS students from magnet schools who were required to return to their base schools, as well as students who had moved, were less likely to reenroll.

Intervention After Reenrollment

The counselors ensured that reenrolled LTS students were connected with school counselors who could provide appropriate counseling services after the students reenrolled. These reenrolled students were much less likely to be long-term suspended again. Only 8% of the case-managed LTS students from Year 1 who reenrolled were long-term suspended again during Year 2 of the EAS program, compared to a recidivism rate of 26% in the baseline year. Of the Year 2 cohort who reenrolled, 93% stayed in school and were not suspended again. Of the Year 3 students who did not move, graduate, receive GEDs, or become incarcerated, a total of 87% reenrolled and remained in school. This compares favorably with about 72% in the first 2 years of the program, and 66% in the baseline year before the program's inception. In all, reenrollment rates rose 21% from the baseline year to Year 3.

When the LTS students were reenrolled, their counselors met with school counselors to ensure these students received proper counseling after they returned to school. School counselors kept track of the students and helped them with academic and personal problems. School counselors placed students who needed academic help in after-school programs or provided some type of tutoring. Course recovery was made available. Personal problems were addressed. Every effort was made to ensure the former LTS students remained committed to school.

These efforts proved so successful, school counselors took note of the low recidivism rate of the reenrolled LTS students. They realized that finding at-risk students and providing them with appropriate counseling might prevent students from becoming long-term suspended. Because of this insight, they developed their own program to put a preventive counseling system in place.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Although the funding for the EAS program is in its final year, the school system has decided to continue funding the positions because of the evidence of the value of this program. This grant-funded program demonstrated how counselors can use data to target students for support services, monitor the counselors' effectiveness at reaching identified students, and assess outcomes to determine which practices are most effective. With the continuation of the EAS program and the commitment of school counselors to prevent students from becoming long-term suspended, more LTS students will reenroll and the incidence of long-term suspension will be reduced.

References

Civil Rights Project at Harvard University & the Advancement Project. (2000). Opportunities suspended: The devastating consequences of zero tolerance and school discipline policies. (Report from a National Summit on Zero Tolerance). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Civil Rights Project. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED454314)

Ekstrom, R. B., Goertz, M. E., Pollack, J. M., & Rock, D. A. (1986). Who drops out of high school and why? Findings from a national study. Teachers College Record, 87(3), 356-373.

Jordan, W. J., Lara, J., & McPartland, J. M. (1994). Exploring the complexity of early dropout causal structures (Report No. 48). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

Skiba, R., & Peterson, R. (1999). The dark side of zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 372-382.

Smith, A. J., Jr. (1995). School-based case management: An integrated service model for early intervention with potential dropouts. National Dropout Prevention Center: A Series of Solutions and Strategies, No. 10.

Wheelock, A., & Dorman, G. (1988). Before it's too late: Dropout prevention in the middle grades. Boston: Massachusetts Advocacy Center and the Center for Early Adolescence.

Janet L. Johnson is with EDSTAR, Inc., Raleigh, NC. E-mail: janet@edstar.org

Eric Sparks is with Wake County Public School System, NC.

Rita G. Lewis, Kris Niedrich, Mary Hall, and Julie Johnson are with EDSTAR.
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES FROM THE FIELD
Author:Johnson, Julie
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Words:2388
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