Every Student Matters: Re-Engage Dubuque Helps Students Get Back on Track

March 7, 2014

By Andrew O. Moore

In a city of 60,000 with a high school graduation rate of 88 percent, does it matter if 300-500 16-21 year olds have not received a high school diploma? Two short years ago, leaders in Dubuque, Iowa said definitively: Yes, it does matter, we want all our young people to succeed.

That definitive answer led to the creation of Re-Engage Dubuque, supported by a partnership between the City of Dubuque, Dubuque Community Schools, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC). As noted in a recent NLC Municipal Action Guide, Re-engage Dubuque incorporates a combination of virtual options, such as allowing students to earn credits through online courses, and a wide-ranging outreach effort.

In mid-February, the partners paused briefly to assemble, report and celebrate results of the first 18 months of operation. Since August 2012, the initiative’s coaches have connected with 190 dropouts and enrolled 180 of them in online courses, alternative and traditional high schools or adult education programs. Of those re-enrolled, 37 percent have received a high school diploma or a High School Equivalency Diploma.

Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol led the celebration of success to date, noting that “while dropout prevention is a priority, it is equally important to help youth and adults connect back into education opportunities… Re-Engage Dubuque contributes greatly to the sustainability goals of our community. To be a viable, equitable community, it is critically important to re-engage our disconnected young citizens.”

School Superintendent Stan Rheingans, whose district strategic plan includes a re-engagement plank, added that the school district wants to ensure the success of the ‘other 11 percent’ [who do not graduate on time]. This partnership exists to show those students that there is a path to success for them.”

Eric Dregne, vice president of the Community Foundation, calculates that the initial investment of $200,000 from the partners would produce significant positive economic impacts over time.  These include $917,000 in additional taxes paid, and a projected $462,000 in additional earnings.

Initiative organizers Shirley Horstman of Dubuque Community Schools, Dregne of the foundation, and Sue Stork of NICC point to three key developments to explain this strong early success record:

  • Building strong local alliances: The city and the foundation folded Re-Engage Dubuque into the existing Project HOPE initiative – supported by $70,000 per year in city funding -- and recruited other partners. The schools oversee staff and operational needs; the college provides high school equivalency instruction; and the foundation provides small-scale funding to cover incidental costs that re-enrolled students incur.
  • Identifying participation barriers and creating solutions: Talented re-engagement coaches Tom Kershner and Temwa Phiri connect students with academic and social supports, and even provide transportation if needed.  Wendy Knight of NICC added, “Coaches are the hub of our wheel.  [We emphasize] the handoff from re-engagement coaches to NICC career coaches.”
  • Looking for students where they are: Coaches spend most of their time circulating throughout the community pursuing students from the district’s dropout list.

Next Steps
The Dubuque partners are asking good questions under the banner of “where to next?”  In 2014, city and community leaders will explore ways to link other supports to what Re-Engage Dubuque already provides. For instance, can the partners provide more consistent public transit to the community college campus outside of town? Can the partners build a bridge to temporary or transitional jobs for the many reengaged students who need income and work experience?  

Following the Dubuque-specific session, five other school districts from across Iowa sent teams to learn about Re-Engage Dubuque strategies. Several departed announcing commitments to formalize local re-engagement functions, and to adapt Dubuque’s ideas as appropriate.

With support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, NLC’s YEF Institute will provide continuing assistance and support to Dubuque and other re-engagement sites in cities across the country. For more about the NLC Reengagement Network, contact Andrew O. Moore at moore@nlc.org.