At Quintanilla Middle School, ambitions (and graduation) get protected from the dropout crisis.

As a former social worker-turned-teacher, Bill Betzen understands the importance of dealing with the underlying problems that cause children to drop out. For the past five years, at Quintanilla Middle School in Dallas, he is working with two of the Dallas Independent School District’s high schools on boosting their graduation rates through the School Archive Project. In this brief, he describes how he and his colleagues work to concentrate middle-schoolers on graduating from school and taking control of their own futures.

In the past dropout prevention projects did not look beyond getting a student out of high school and into college. A longer focus into the future, starting in middle school, is increasingly recognized in the educational community as being needed. The planning and success of the Washington University based Freshman Transition Initiative,, is one verification of the need for our students to plan 10 years into the future. Another is the School Archive Project ,, that is now almost 5 years old in Dallas.

The Archive Project only takes two steps: The first step is to know and closely follow current dropout rates so as to monitor progress. Too often official numbers are less than reliable. An annually updated 10+ year enrollment by grade spreadsheet on every school and school district web site, with graduation numbers included, does that. From this spreadsheet a minimum of four separate dropout rate measurements can be calculated showing the current dropout situation in a manner anyone can understand. Auditing enrollment numbers can easily be done. No magical “coding” for “valid transfers” is allowed such as those that allowed the Houston Independent School District to officially claim fantasy dropout rates in the previous decade.

The second step is to bolt a 500-pound gun vault to the floor in every secondary school lobby to function as a 10-year time-capsule. This can happen both at the middle school and high school level. Each new class writes letters to themselves for the vault as they enter the school. They write about their life history and plans for the future. Their parents are invited to also write a letter to their child to place in the same self-addressed envelope with their child’s letter. Then, as the years pass at the school and they walk past the vault every day they know that their letter is already with the thousands of others inside the vault. Hopefully they will think more often of their futures.

As they are about to graduate from that school, students receive back that initial self addressed envelope and use it to another letter to themselves with a clearer focus  ten years into their future. Parents are again invited to write a letter to their child, this time with a 10 year focus in their dreams for their child. The student places the new letters inside another self-addressed envelope and then into the vault. They plan for the ten-year class reunion to retrieve it at which they know they will be invited to speak to then current students in the school about their recommendations for success. They are warned to prepare for questions from those decade younger students such as: “What would you do differently if you were 13 again?”

The first School Archive Project started in 2005 in a Dallas middle school with an 8th grade class that was the Graduation Class of 2009. Both high schools who received these students had the largest graduation class ever with their Class of 2009. This has effects on the entire Dallas school district as well. Thanks to the gains at these two districts, 11th- and  12th-grade enrollments in Dallas are the highest  on record. Enrollment has increased five percent since the 2005-2006 school year for a total increase of 758 students in these upper grades — even as overall enrollment declined by 2.5-percent during the same time.

Realistically focusing students onto their own futures makes a big difference. Best of all, this simple project costs less than $2 per 8th grade student to run. It also reinforces what teachers are already saying to their students: Plan for the future.

One of the Archive Project’s two high schools, Sunset High, was one of the original Dropout Factories in the original study involving 12th grade enrollment data from 2004-2006. It is no longer a “Dropout Factory” today. As more students in the School Archive Project enters it school, its promoting power has increased, from 38.7 percent in 2005-2006 to 64 percent for 2009-2010.

This summer Sunset saw the value of the Archive Project and started it’s own Archive Project at the high school level. The other middle school feeding into Sunset has also started an Archive Project. Now all students entering Sunset High School will have been involved in the Archive Project in middle school, and the future focus will be reinforced at Sunset with its own 500-pound time-capsule vault present that students will walk past several times each day. The Sunset promotion rate will continue to rise, now even faster than it has these last 4 years.

For other dropout factories, a project such as this can mean higher graduation numbers. For students, it also means graduation — and a more-intensified focus on their own futures.  Everybody wins!


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[Oh yeah, the pesky disclaimer (as if you didn’t already know): All Voices are solely opinions of the author, not of Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle or the RiShawn Biddle Consultancy. ]