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What to look for as students return

  • Joanna
  • September 11, 2019

The first few days of school can be a “make or break” time for students on the cusp of disengagement. But if you know what to look for, these days can be a critical time to identify students in need of immediate interventions. Here are four early warning signs:


Maybe they’re just taking a late summer vacation. Maybe they’ve just got the back-to-school blues. Maybe they’re just having a little trouble readjusting to a school schedule.

Those are all plausible reasons why a student with no other issues might miss a bit of school in the first month back. But when we chock up early absences to things like this, we miss a vital opportunity to identify students at grave risk of disengagement. 

Students who miss up to four days of school in the first month generally will miss about that same number of days from month to month. Those who miss more than four days, though, are more likely to have a pattern of absences that increases as the year goes on. And, since chronic absenteeism is a key predictor of disengagement, these students should be identified as soon as possible for interventions. 


Effective summer programs have measurable outcomes on future student performance. But, far too often, many students who are enrolled in summer school don’t earn any credit at all. 

In many ways, these students are further behind than they were before starting summer school — still lacking original credits, but now also discouraged by the loss of a vacation and yet another academic failure.

These students are at intense risk for giving up. That’s why, at the start of the school year, they should be first in line for additional interventions, wrap-around support and alternative pathways.


Every teacher can tell a story about a student who left school for the summer then returned in the fall as a completely different person. 

A lot of the time, these stories don’t have happy endings. Students can change a lot during the summer, and they often return to school unmotivated, distracted, and troubled in ways that couldn’t have been predicted before the break.

When students begin to show signs of disillusionment during the school year, a “sit back and see how it goes” approach can be understandable. After all, teachers and school leaders get a daily glimpse of these students. As long as these young men and women stay on the radar, giving them time to figure things out for themselves can be just the right approach, at least at first.

When these changes happen over a summer, though, a more immediate and proactive response is warranted. These students, after all, may have already suffered from months of negative slides in their attitude about school and their future. 


What happens when you put new eyes on an old challenge? Sometimes, the steps that need to be taken to solve that challenge become very clear, very quickly. 

The same thing happens in schools. The start of the school year is a time in which teachers are getting a “new look” at students, often meeting these young men and women for the first time and getting to know them in ways other teachers may have missed. 

Respect these “hunches.” This is a vital opportunity, after all, to identify students who may benefit from alternative pathways to graduation, but have thus far fallen through the cracks. 


Graduation Alliance helps create alternative paths for individuals who need flexibility and support to earn a diploma.