There are many reasons students drop out of school. Some of those reasons are beyond the influence of teachers to change. Others, however, relate directly to what happens in the classroom. One of those reasons, reported by many kids who drop out of school, is a feeling of being ignored by the people in authority and not feeling any kind of connection to their school.

Changing their approach to address those issues is one of the best ways educators can prevent kids from dropping out of school.

The problem of dropping out of school became more significant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the health crisis began, student dropout rates have sharply increased in many places around the country. But even as students return to the classroom as anticipated in 2021, teachers of students placed at-risk will continue to face challenges.

Dr. Anthony Dallmann Jones, Director of Marian University’s MA in Education, Area of Focus: At-Risk and Alternative Education Program, has focused on this and other issues surrounding at-risk students for his entire career. As part of the training they receive in the program, educators learn tactics and techniques that can lower school dropout rates.

“We understand more than ever about why students leave school because of the research that’s been done and the experience of teachers and administrators,” said Dr. Dallmann-Jones. “The key now is getting that information to educators and putting solutions into action. Otherwise, we face a situation where we may lose more kids than ever because we didn’t properly take on dropout prevention.”

Many Students Feel Uncared for in Schools

Dr. Dallmann-Jones offers an illuminating story about ways educators can prevent kids from dropping out of school. The story is one of the reasons he first proposed the idea of The Secret Angels Club, which is a way for teachers, administrators, and school employees to work together to help at-risk students remain in school. He writes about the concept in his book, “How to Connect with Students At-Risk: Creating learning environments for teacher and student success!

He tells a story about a friend and colleague who formerly worked as a teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. The school district where his friend worked required students dropping out of school to fill out a form and get it signed by parents. To understand better why students decided to leave school, the teachers modified the form to add some multiple-choice responses to the question: “What are your reasons for wanting to withdraw from school?”

An astonishing 97% of the students ticked the choice saying: “None of the teachers or administrators in my school seemed to care about me.” As Dr. Dallmann-Jones writes, “This is a shocking indictment about us as educators!”

The Cost of Caring

Educators often say they cannot afford that many of the things that could benefit students in the classroom, notes Dr. Dallmann-Jones. He acknowledges that point but also adds that caring is not costly. He writes:

How much budget does it take to care? None.
How much time does it take to care? None.
Whose approval do you need to show you care? No one’s.
How much equipment or software or supplies do you need to show you care? None.
What sort of ‘program’ must you have to show you care? None.

He notes that four issues keep educators from making strides in showing students that they care.

  • Awareness of the truth.
  • Ideas on how they can exhibit caring
  • Training on how to incorporate caring into their day (he notes that this is  “sad, but I can see it as needed by some of the people with whom I have worked in the schools”).
  • Willingness. Dr. Dallmann-Jones notes that even with the proper tools, teachers need to have a willingness to act. “Caring applied as a band-aide, like a fake smile or inauthentic pat on the back, is not what caring is about,” he writes. “Fake caring might even make things worse…who knows?”

Ideas to Connect with Students Placed At-Risk

In his book, Dr. Dallmann-Jones writes about his idea of the Secret Angels Clubs, something he first proposed two decades ago. He has worked on the idea ever since, refining some of his ideas, which are presented in his new book.

His list of how to set up a Secret Angels Club offers teachers ideas of ways to prevent student dropouts. The following is taken verbatim from his book.

  • Gather a group of teachers who have the willingness to show they care.
  • Elect a Secret Angel Club coordinator.
  • Secretly identify Shadow Children in the school (Shadow Children are those more likely to drop out).
  • Recruit other Secret Angel Club members as needed—any adult in the school can be one if they are willing to commit 10 minutes a month to change a child’s life. Sometimes custodial people make the best Secret Angels!
  • Pair a Secret Angel with at least one child. The student is NEVER to know about this – ever!
  • Don’t overload your Secret Angel. Note: A designated child must not be enrolled in the classroom of a Secret Angel teacher.
  • The ACTION: At one point, during every week or two, the Secret Angel should make eye contact with the child and say something positive and/or smile. Don’t overdo it. Again, just once every week or two.

He even offers suggestions, such as “Well, hi there, Susie!” (With a look of pleasant discovery)” or ““There you are Harold! I was wondering if I would see you today!”

Simple Acts of Caring

These simple acts of caring and focused attention can transform a student over time. “It’s the direct eye contact, and welcoming body language, that makes the difference. Sometimes a big smile and a hand wave will do, particularly if it is awkward to use words in certain surroundings,” Dr. Dallmann-Jones writes.

He said the approach is most successful when teachers try to mix up the greetings and to do them in different parts of the school at different times. He also notes to avoid giving any kind of gift. “Your caring attitude is enough,” he writes.

The beauty of the Secret Angels Club is that no one talks about the Secret Angels Club. Only its members know they are involved, and only the members know the names of the children involved. The effectiveness comes from naturally showing a caring attitude toward students – the club only provides focus on this important area of education.

Those ideas can help teachers make an even bigger impact on the lives of students and contribute in the effort to prevent kids from dropping out of school.