Check & Connect mentor Erin Whitehead, left, had a weekly check-in with a student in Carver County. Whitehead is an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, a community volunteer serving as a mentor.Check & Connect mentor Erin Whitehead, left, had a weekly check-in with a student in Carver County. Whitehead is an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, a community volunteer serving as a mentor.

Keeping kids in school

Dropout prevention model Check & Connect originated 25 years ago from the partnership of researchers, practitioners, parents, and students led by the Institute on Community Integration

check_and_connect_wordsFor some of us, thoughts of high school produce fond memories: school activities, forming friendships, even learning a thing or two. For others, it may have been a more challenging time punctuated by learning disabilities, absenteeism, or feeling alienated from classmates or school in general.

Truth be told, since the 1970s dismal graduation rates have been a concern for many in the education field, including America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth. Over this time, millions of students dropped out of school, often leaving their dreams in the dust behind them.

Recently those rates have been on the rise. Encouraging increases have been realized in on-time graduations among African American and Hispanic youth. And for the third year in a row, America is inching closer to a 90 percent graduation goal by the class of 2020. So what happened to turn the tide?

In its 2015 annual update, “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic,” the Alliance acknowledges several contributing factors, including national attention to the problem and a staggering realization of its implications. High school dropouts don’t go on to college and have less of a chance to land decent jobs or to become engaged or contributing members of their communities.

One intervention that has proven to keep kids in school came out of the Institute on Community Integration in the College of Education and Human Development.

The right start

“The development of Check & Connect was unique,” says Sandra Christenson, Birkmaier Professor of Educational Leadership in the Department of Educational Psychology. “We started out right.”

In 1989, then-professor Robert Bruininks, Martha Thurlow, and Christenson submitted a five-year proposal to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education. The aim was to develop, evaluate, and refine a dropout prevention intervention for 200 middle school students with learning and behavioral disabilities.

“Dropout rates were increasing in our schools—disproportionately so with special education students,” remembers Christenson.

The core component of this intervention consisted of mentors checking student performance each week—attendance, behavior, academics—and then providing personalized interventions that helped students solve problems and build skills to be successful at school, connecting them with school staff, families, and community service providers to trigger more engagement.

Four key components

  • • A mentor works with students and families for a minimum of two years, functioning as a liaison between home and school.
  • • Regular “checks” rely on existing data schools collect related to student adjustment, behavior, and educational progress.
  • • Personalized, timely “connects” emphasize problem solving and skill building to reestablish and maintain a student’s connection to school.
  • • Engagement with families enhances communication and strengthens the family–school relationship.

Check & Connect was a success. Compared to the control group, significantly more students who received the intervention stayed in school and earned more credits toward graduation. By grade nine, they were on track to graduate within five years. The results were replicated in a five-year longitudinal study with high school students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, a group at high risk for educational failure.

“The first thing we did right was to write the grant with educators from the Minneapolis Public Schools,” Christenson says. “We hired Dr. Mary Sinclair as the University project-based coordinator and David Evelo, an exceptional Minneapolis educator, as the school-based coordinator.

“And, perhaps most importantly, we had one year in which to study the high school dropout issue,” she recalls. “We focused on both science and practice to understand the predictors of dropout and for intervention design.

“In our review of existing literature, we emphasized the effect of alterable variables, such as absences, inappropriate behavior, or missing academic skills on early withdrawal from school.

“We listened to the experience of students, educators, community professionals, and parents.

“Overall, we were interested in the functional behavior of the student and how the environment could facilitate a better outcome.”

Worldwide response

Twenty-five years later, Check & Connect continues to be studied and implemented with K–12 students—with and without disabilities—in 35 states across the United States and in New Zealand and Canada. Four efficacy trials—in Chicago, Montreal, San Diego, and San Jose—have been completed, exploring the impact of Check & Connect on elementary and secondary students who show signs of disengagement and are at risk of school dropout.

“We now know that our intervention works effectively in different school contexts and with diverse populations to keep students in school making progress towards graduation,” says Christenson.

Progress has been made in single schools and, in the case of Florida, an entire state. Check & Connect in Florida has been supported by a State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG) from the Office of Special Education Program.

“We started in 2013 with nine middle and high schools using school personnel as mentors,” says Peg Sullivan, SPDG Director. “There are now 56 schools using the program with this model and an additional 16 [that] started training this fall with the goal of implementing in January 2016.”

In just two short years, Florida has many individual success stories. For example, one student recovered enough credits to move from freshman to junior status in one year, getting him back on track for graduation.

“Check & Connect can help bring schools and communities together.”

Of the dropout interventions reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, a respected resource for informed education decision making, in 2006 and again this year, Check & Connect was the only dropout intervention found to have positive effects on staying in school.

“One of the reasons Check & Connect has been so successful is because it started as a research-based intervention,” Christenson says, “and as it was adapted in more school and community environments, it grew to encompass training and technical expertise.”

A number of options are now regularly provided, including on-site implementation and mentor trainings with follow-up technical assistance to ensure fidelity, a professional community of practice for site coordinators to share tips and lessons learned, tools to measure student engagement, and online resources for administrators seeking grant-writing assistance.

Designed to adapt

With school districts often operating on lean budgets, financial support to implement Check & Connect can be tricky. But partnerships have been realized with the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Phoenix, United Way of the Plains in Wichita, Kansas, and in communities that have created their own nonprofits, such as the Friends of the Allen County Juvenile Center, Inc., formed in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Now the Friends can seek out grants from foundations or other funds to keep Check & Connect working in their community.

“The training our mentors received from the University of Minnesota’s Check & Connect team was outstanding and prepared them for the difficult task of keeping kids on track,” says Allen County Superior Court judge Daniel Heath. “Since then, we have successfully lowered truancies and tardiness, raised attendance, and lowered suspensions and expulsions for students monitored by the program.”

While Check & Connect is a structured intervention, it does not—by design—promote an overly prescriptive approach for building student engagement. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for staying in school. Interventions are based on student need and take into consideration available support resources.

“Many schools I work with acknowledge the need for a mentoring program, but they feel exhausted at the suggestion of asking their teachers to do ‘one more thing,’” says Lois Jones, school improvement consultant for Missouri State University. “Check & Connect can help bring schools and communities together in an effort to turn that exhaustion into action and data to validate their efforts and successes.”

Mentor training is provided, but who fulfills these roles can vary. Teachers, social workers, and counselors have served as mentors at various sites. Some mentors are hired staff with a caseload of students, while other schools leverage existing staff to become mentors. One fact is clear.

“The mentor is critically important,” maintains Christenson. “Their role is vital to offer persistent support and to build confidence in these students.”

In October, Check & Connect hosted its first-ever national conference, “Celebrating 25 Years of Student Engagement,” at McNamara Alumni Center on the Twin Cities campus. The conference brought together 170 leading practitioners and experts from around the world to address student engagement among at-risk youth. Attendees shared lessons learned and gained knowledge to implement and sustain Check & Connect to support youth in reaching their goals and graduating from high school.

Darnell Logan, ’02, attended the conference from DeKalb County School District in greater Atlanta, Georgia. Logan first encountered Check & Connect when he worked as a student at the Institute on Community Integration and found his path to school psychology. Today he is implementing Check & Connect in 36 middle and high schools in a district of more than 103,000 students.

The conference was a refresher and a place to learn. Logan heard from colleagues about using the model in different contexts, including the juvenile justice system and the first year of college, and was able to share his own experiences as well.

“I remember when the total number of people working on Check & Connect was maybe ten, and now it has grown enough to hold a national conference,” says Logan. “It was very exciting.”

Professor Sandra Christenson, center, with former president Robert Bruininks, left, who helped to write the first grant that resulted in Check & Connect, and Institute on Community Integration professor and director David Johnson at the 25th anniversary conference in October.
Professor Sandra Christenson, center, with former president Robert Bruininks, left, who helped to write the first grant that resulted in Check & Connect, and Institute on Community Integration professor and director David Johnson at the 25th anniversary conference in October.

For more information, including training and consultation services, visit Check & Connect.

Story by Tony Baisley | Photos by Dawn Villella (top) and Xueqin Qian