During a visit to Altoona Wednesday, Pennsylvania First Lady Susan Corbett visited the Mirror to talk about her high school dropout prevention initiative, Opening Doors.
The dropout crisis, she said, has been a personal concern of hers since she was a 22-year-old English teacher at North Lebanon High School.
Currently, 17.4 percent - or nearly one in five - Pennsylvania students does not make it to high school graduation with their classmates, the Opening Doors website states.
The economic impact of dropouts has been researched by organizations like the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, which has stated decreasing the number of high school dropouts by half nationally would produce $45 billion per year in net economic benefit to society.
Corbett's initiative has two main focuses: identifying middle school students who are likely to drop out and keeping those students on track to graduate.
"A lot of people nationally are starting to pay attention to what happens during those three years of middle school, and Pennsylvania is going to be in the forefront. I am pretty excited," she said.
After two years of planning, and securing $6 million between federal grants and a private grant from the Dell Foundation for her technology-based initiative, Corbett said all Pennsylvania schools will have a tool to prevent drop outs next fall.
"We are really excited about the potential. Education departments across the country are calling to find out about this system," she said. "Because a lot of it is funded through federal money, we will be sharing [the program] with other states."
Corbett's initiative draws heavily from research by Robert Balfanz, co-director of Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center.
"It showed if kids can't read at grade level by third grade, the student thinks about dropping out in fifth grade, and by seventh or eighth grade, they start to disengage."
Two years ago, Corbett said department of education officials said the state did not have a dropout prevention program focusing on middle school students. The department secretary at the time, Ron Tomalis, was supportive.
Corbett's initiative, the first of its kind in the United States, she said, consists of two main parts.
One is an online "early warning" system to organize three categories of information that research states can identify middle school students who are likely to drop out. The three categories are attendance, behavior and course performance in English and math.
"Students having trouble with one of those things is a signal they are disengaging," Corbett said.
With the early warning system, each school can coordinate student's attendance, behavior and performance. It is completely private and controlled by the school, she said. Teachers already collect student data, but it is scattered.
"It is not a requirement of the state," Corbett said. And the state will not be able to access the information.
Teachers will be able to enter data into a password-protected website.
"The system will recognize a pattern developing that a student may be going astray, [and it will alert the teacher]," she said.
"Because all the teachers are adding the information, they can see the whole picture of what's happening to the child - and what's happening in the classroom, because maybe it's a teacher who is not effective."
Aside from collecting the information in one system, the second part of the initiative is an intervention catalogue of community resources in each county.
"We are doing it by county, collecting the information on resources beyond the government resources that we know," she said. "Perhaps there is a church with a great after-school activity program that can give a kid something that the child is passionate about. It could be Big Brothers Big Sisters, or a business group or chamber of commerce mentoring program."
Teachers and school administrators would use the online catalogue to match students with an intervention in the community. Using resources outside of the school system is cost-efficient for schools, she said.
Four school districts are testing the intervention system. Remembering her teaching days, Corbett said she had two at-risk students who "stuck with me over the years." She often wonders whether those students graduated and what they are doing now as adults.
Corbett's personal connection with the dropout crisis continued as she campaigned for her husband's 2011 gubernatorial election. In campaigning, she saw schools where 50 percent of students don't graduate.