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Painting a picture of a “typical” high school dropout is not an easy task. The reasons behind a student’s decision to leave school can vary from specific life events, such as pregnancy or work obligations, to no longer seeing a reason to come to school due to boredom or frustration. One thing we do know is that the dropout crisis disproportionately affects high-poverty communities. Low-income students fail to graduate at five times the rate of middle-income youth and six times that of higher-income youth, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

So how can schools and communities in these high-poverty areas combat the high number of students dropping out of school? And where does expanded learning time (ELT) connect to preventing school dropouts?
There are strong examples across the country of how completely redesigning the way schools use time allow them to better serve our high-poverty communities. From those examples, a few themes emerge – engaging opportunities, strong school culture and individualized support – and it is clear that these schools are working hard to shed the historical ideologies of what “school” looks like.

Students want to see the connection between school and the real world, and ELT allows schools to be more engaging by offering hands-on, experiential learning. Students also want opportunities to express themselves outside of traditional subjects, and ELT enables schools to have time for subjects such as art, music, and physical education that open students’ minds to new ways of thinking and build different skill sets, such as teamwork, collaboration and leadership.

Secondly, research shows that one distinguishing feature of a high-performing, high-poverty school is its high expectations for student behavior and academic achievement. Redesigning the school day with the help of more time allows schools to establish and maintain a school-wide culture that sticks. Clearly, time allocation is not the only driver affecting school culture, but high-performing ELT schools invest time in their schedules for activities that build a culture of high expectations.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from IDEA College Preparatory Donna (ICP Donna) in Donna, Texas. The Peer Assistance Leader (PAL) Program runs an orientation session for all new students at the beginning of the school year to teach the expectations, values and routines of the school. Each student is paired with a “PAL” with the goal of the program being to ensure that each student persists from year-to-year at ICP Donna. Students are able to provide one another with valuable and unique support, and they also are able to alert the adults if more social or academic support is needed. It is a pretty remarkable program that would take away from critical instructional time if ICP Donna did not have an expanded day and year.

Additionally, for struggling learners, more individualized instruction is the key to helping them stay engaged and motivated. When teachers have the time to review student assessment data and identify problem areas, they are able to individualize instruction based on students’ unique learning needs, recognizing that each student learns at his or her own pace, and that different strategies may work for different students.

With the additional time, ELT teachers report they also are able to foster more nurturing relationships with their students. These types of relationships are crucial in ensuring that students stay in school.

For the more than 1,000 ELT schools across the country that are excelling with additional learning time, time really is one of the game changers. These schools are using more time to foster deeper collaboration among teachers, strengthen instruction, and above all else, create more meaningful opportunities for both students and teachers to build relationships. If we can create meaningful opportunities and make connections that make students want to stay in school, then we – as teachers, parents, advocates – have done our job.

It sounds counterintuitive to say “to combat students from dropping out, keep them in school longer!” But it may be true. Time allows for the reimagining and innovation needed to truly transform schools and student learning. We know that building strong student-teacher relationships and making learning engaging both help students recognize the importance of their education. Now we just need to give more schools additional opportunities to redesign how they make that happen. Time is of the essence.