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GOAL Academy: giving dropouts a second chance.

"It is generally acknowledged that, completing high school represents a kev milestone in an individuars schooling and social and economic advancement," says Christopher B. Swanson in his 2004 publication, Who Graduates? Who Doesn't?: A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001. And it doesn't take a Ph.D. to know he's right. His paper goes on to state that, "students from historically disadvantaged minority groups ... have little more than a fifty-fifty chance of finishing high school with a diploma" In addition, he notes that "graduation rates for students who attend school in high poverty, racially segregated, and urban school districts lag from 15 to 18 percent behind their peers."

Who Is a High School Dropout?

The U.S. Department of Education's (ED) National Center for Education Statistics defines dropouts as "16 - through 21-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential (either a diploma or an equivalency credential such as a General Education Development (GED) certificate)." According to the feds, the U.S. dropout rate for 2008 (the last year for which statistics are currently available) was 8 percent, with the number of African American and Hispanic dropouts far outpacing their white classmates.

According to Swanson, the United States has a "national graduation rate of 68 percent, indicating that nearly one-third of ninth-graders fail to complete high school with a regular diploma within a four-year period." His number doesn't count GED recipients as graduates, so it is much higher than the ED data.

No matter whom you ask, it seems that dropouts are students who have not completed high school. In other words, they are failures. Yet none of this takes into account what teachers at the GOAL (Guided Online Academic Learning) Academy, located throughout Colorado, see every day. They don't sec their students as having failed, they see the traditional brick-and-mortar education system and their students' family and social circumstances as having failed. Their students are not failures; they are successes that simply have not happened yet.

GOAL's Curriculum, Demographics

While online schools are clearly different from traditional brick-and-mortar schools. GOAL Academy is also different from most online schools. In the standard online environment, teachers are assigned 800 to 1,200 students whom they never meet in person, and with whom even their online interactions are necessarily limited. Because GOAL students are doing more than simultaneously picking their way through the minefields of adolescence and secondary education, GOAL founders Ken Growell, Joe DeVita, and Margot DeVita determined that they needed something different. They developed GOAL's signature "high-tech/high-touch" philosophy because they knew that these students need more individual attention, not less.

GOAL teachers have a maximum of 25 students, with whom they meet in person approximately every two weeks, and with whom they communicate almost daily via phone, text, IM, Skype, etc. In addition, GOAL teachers have constant access to their students' online classes, in order to monitor progress, assist with difficulties and offer encouragement. According to Janelle Quick, GOAL's director of administrative services, "most if not all online schools focus on one thing ... computer delivery of an education. GOAL understands that in many cases where at-risk students are involved, they have already struggled in school and just handing them a computer and thinking they will have the self-driven rigor to complete school is unrealistic." GOAL's success shows she is correct.

Demographically, GOAL students range in age from 14 to 21 and older, and are predominantly low-income and Hispanic. Approximately half are teen parents. In their homes, the "essential step toward economic and social well-being" Swanson talks about, the high school diploma, is hanging on very few walls. His finding's show ^individuals with higher levels of education (and more advanced credentials) enjoy higher income, more stable employment and less dependency on public assistance. [And] Those with more education are also less likely lo experience a variety of detrimental social outcomes, including early childbearing, reports of ill health, incarceration or criminal victimization." Those findings are seen in the personal histories of many, if not most, GOAL students.


In addition to the acknowledged increase in dropout rates for low-income and minority students. ED statistics show that "dropout rates increase as grade level increase[s]. The lowest dropout rate was for grade nine (3.0 percent) while the highest grade-level dropout rate was tor grade 12 (6.1 percent)." and that males drop out at greater rates (4.6 percent: than females (3.5 percent).

Swanson's research found that while the average American high school graduation rate is 68 percent, there are regional fluctuations:
Nonhcast  71.0
South     62.4
Midwest   74.5
West      68.2

Located throughout Colorado (which has a 69 percent graduation rate) and with (he majority of students coming from the "at-risk" population, it is not a huge surprise that many of GOAL'S students arrive after having already dropped out of traditional schools. Nor is it shocking to hear GOAL science and math teacher Alan Van Norman sav that, for most of ms students, locating an environment conducive to study is their first difficulty, and finding uninterrupted quiet time to study in that space is next. They are also often caring for an elderly or ill relative, responsible for the care of younger siblings and/or their own children, working an outside job to supplement the family income, and/or dealing with the many bureaucracies responsible for the legal, criminal, financial and other social services involved in their lives.

GOAL's regional academic officer. Karla Ash, said she is "continually amazed at the circumstances many of our students arc trying to deal with to just survive life, let alone get an education." As online school is a new concept, and many of our students' families don't have time or space set aside for studying, or any examples of the value of carving them out. Van Norman notes that GOAL students tend to need "a lot more structure provided for them" in order to make GOAL's learn-at-your-own-pace format work for them. He calls himself and his colleagues "professional helpers" who offer ideas to their students and their families regarding how to make school a priority.

While the majority of students fall into this classification, not all GOAL students are at risk. GOAL also serves gifted and talented students who are bored in traditional classrooms, homeschooled students whose parents want a more standardized and rigorous curriculum than they could provide on their own, and students whose athletic, musical or other talents and commitments cause them to miss school due to rehearsals, performances or travel responsibilities. Whichever type of student Van Norman is dealing with, he says that GOAL teachers must be especially "vigilant in keeping close and frequent contact with the student and his or her family in the beginning stages of transitioning to our student-centered, self-paced learning environment."

In addition to the Colorado Core Curriculum, GOAL offers its students career and technical education (CTE) through its ACE (Alternative Cooperative Education)-based career development program. According to Rich Mestas. GOAL's chief academic offieer. "our students often don't have role models for long-term employment or the so-called 'soft skills' that are essential 10 career success, which makes it all the more important for us to provide the training they need beyond academic and vocational excellence." The skills he is referring to include time management, workplace attire, interview preparation, appropriate workplace communication--all the things successful employees take for granted.

According to Auclra Lane, GOAL's CTE coordinator, GOAL's career do velopnient curriculum "includes the use of state-supported curriculum such as Individual and Career Academic Plans, financial literacy, interest inventories all the components of the governor's Career Readiness Certification (CRC) program. By having our students take one career development course per semester, we insure that they spend time developing their resumes, writing college application essays, and completing school and job applications. They also learn and practice interviewing skills, develop and track their personal, academic and career goals, and design and implement the plans necessary for achieving those goals."

During the process, students are encouraged to participate in the annua' ACE Student Leadership Conference (scheduled for April 27 this year), where ihcy compete against a rubric in areas ranging from completing a job application, to interview skills, to solving business issues based on prepared scenarios.

As graduation approaches, GOAL's counselors work with students and their families in College in Colorado (CiC, a state-developed career planning, guidance, tracking and portfolio development Web site), to decide which local colleges to visit, to complete college and financial aid applications, understand want ads, apply lor jobs, and polish interviewing skills. It is this time-consuming, personal, "high-tech/high-touch" student interaction that makes GOAL work. And GOAL students experience that difference as a positive thing, with results that include a dropout rate that is 17.3 percent.

Seventeen-year-old Ashley Jackson says she has "a closer one-on-one relationship" with her GOAL teacher than any teacher in her brick-and-mortar past.

"Not like when I was in a more normal, big class, where I felt I wasn't getting as much help as I needed."

While the details of her situation are. of course, unique, Jackson is not a particularly unusual GOAL student. No one in her family has a high school diploma, although several have earned GEDs. She has moved a lot, raised her younger siblings while her mother worked two jobs, has had some serious health issues and, eventually, "gave up on school and dropped out." She says she left her most recent high school, "because I was not learning best in a normal class. T like working as slow or fast as I need to to get my work done and I felt like my last school was teaching me stuff I already knew, so I wasn't into the lessons."

Relationships Matter

Over and over GOAL students and teachers speak of their personal relationships as the main thing that keeps them coming back. Sixteen-year-old Rochelle Works lost her mother in 2010, and lives with her grandmother ancl her step-father, a long-distance trucker. Money is tight, several recent lavoffs have eliminated the health insurance dad's job used to provide, and her math and English scores indicate that she has missed a significant amount of learning. Works said she left high school the year before her mom died due to "drama with friends" and the sense that she wasn't learning as much as she could.

She describes her relationship with her GOAL teacher, her second in as many years, as "very good" and says she is confident that, "if I need help with anything she will help me." She describes the type of person who works at GOAL as "someone who is caring and nice, but also can be on your butt to get things done. This is a great school. I would recommend it to anyone. They have great classes and great teachers who are great people."

That description could have been written by any GOAL administrator. Quick says GOAL consistently looks for "teachers that truly are in the held to serve students. Ones who don't look to a 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. schedule and live for summers off. Their passion for leaching blinds them to the traditional school mentality." The fact that it comes from a student illustrates that Crowell, DeVita, DeVita and those who have joined them in creating and sustaining the GOAL approach, were right in thinking that their high-tech/high-touch approach would increase the number of Colorado youth who experience the "key milestone" of high school graduation--and its attendant increase in health, wealth and stability.

Interested in exploring this topic further? Discuss it with your colleagues on the ACTE forums at

Lisa Napell Dicksteen is an academic specialist at GOAL Academy, Longmont, Colorado. She can be contacted at
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Title Annotation:Promising Practices; Guided Online Academic Learning
Author:Dicksteen, Lisa Napell
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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