Rebecca Wells, Ph.D.

Rebecca Wells, Ph.D.

In America, children are told that with hard work and determination they can do anything. However, many students today face formidable obstacles, eventually drop out of high school, and never obtain their diploma. How does a country with so many opportunities still have students who are unable to complete their high school education? 

“Both health and social factors can reduce youths’ chances of completing high school, including pregnancy and behavioral health problems,” said Rebecca Wells, Ph.D., professor and department head at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health.  “In turn, people who do not complete high school tend to have worse health as adults.”  Hence, education and public health are inextricably intertwined. 

Dr. Wells recently co-authored a study on community initiatives within two cities to improve high school graduation rates. The study, entitled “A Network Perspective on Dropout Prevention in Two Cities,” included two school districts, each from a different metropolitan city, and entailed online surveys and phone interviews with representatives from local organizations such as the United Way, YMCA, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. In addition they interviewed representatives of the school system and mayor’s office in each city. 

The study revealed a wide range of dropout prevention initiatives by community organizations, creating both opportunities for at-risk youth and coordination challenges for public school systems.   Dropout prevention activities included after-school programs, one-to-one mentoring, and social services for families. In addition, a Chamber of Commerce provided the school system with information regarding information about job markets.  However, dropout prevention leaders in both cities identified a need for more involvement by the business sector. 

“School district offices have vital roles to play in engaging community partners,  however, school district staff must be highly selective in how they invest their time,” said Wells. “Rather than asking schools to maintain direct connections with the myriad local organizations, superintendents might use a network perspective and use key partners as brokers to other agencies.”  In particular, both the mayor’s office and the United Way were central in both cities’ dropout prevention networks, and hence may help school systems efficiently marshal a range of local dropout prevention resources.  Communities in Schools, a school-based dropout prevention program, was also central in the city in which it operated. 

“Because organizations such as Communities in Schools provide direct services and connect individual children to other local resources, they may have a particularly realistic appreciation of how to build more supportive systems for children and their families,” said Wells. “Dropout prevention leaders may also have greater success engaging businesses if they capitalize on their expertise in addition to their financial resources and job opportunities.” 

The roles of nonacademic factors in high school completion – including health needs – make it imperative that educators, businesses, health and social services agencies, and other local organizations  collaborate effectively. 

This study was recently published in the Educational Administration Quarterly Journal. Co-authors on the study include Elizabeth J. Gifford, Ph.D., Yu Bai, Ph.D., and Ashley Corra, M.S., of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

 

 

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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