With graduation season behind us, thousands of high school seniors statewide are embarking on the next chapter of their lives with a diploma in hand. But what about all those kids who didn’t graduate with their class? The kids who slipped behind or gave up altogether?

About 1 in 4 high school seniors in Washington state failed to graduate with their class last year. That amounted to about 27,000 teens who didn’t get to celebrate that milestone on time, according to Education Week’s “Diplomas Count 2013, Second Chances: Turning Dropouts into Graduates.” Unfortunately, it is not expected to be much different this year when all the numbers are finally tallied.

Every dropout represents a series of missed opportunities to intervene with support for that student.

Those 27,000 kids deserve better. They didn’t wake up one morning, flip a switch, and go from solid student to struggling. When a young person drops out, it’s a long process, not a moment in time. The reasons why kids drop out go much deeper than academic challenges; they are as complex and varied as the kids themselves. Poverty, language barriers, homelessness, and poor health all play a part in limiting the ability of a child to even see, much less pursue, his or her potential.

Every dropout represents a series of missed opportunities to intervene with support for that student. Who gets the failing grade when that happens? The entire community. There are a growing number of students who need help and countless opportunities for communities to embrace and surround these young people with the resources and support needed to secure a better future.

The good news is there are programs already in place quietly doing just that. Broadly known as Integrated Student Supports (ISS), these programs are a school-based method of targeting both academic and non-academic barriers to learning by identifying individual student needs and mobilizing community resources to meet them. In other words, designated staff are placed in schools to do whatever it takes to help students overcome obstacles to success so they stay in school, graduate on time, and have a chance for a brighter future.

National research firm Child Trends recently issued a report crediting the ISS approach for improving education outcomes. Key findings show that student-centered ISS programs increase student attendance and lower dropout rates, are cost-effective and yield a positive return on investment, and are more likely to be successful than interventions that focus on single factors in isolation.

We need to be doing more of this if we want to change the picture for all those kids who are dropping out.

While we applaud the Class of 2014 and encourage those coming behind them, we need to remember that this year’s commencement has 27,000 empty seats, and it will take a community to help ensure students have the support they need to fill them in 2015.

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