As we make our way through these unprecedented COVID times, it is all the more important to keep kids on the path to graduation as best we can. We’ve seen and heard the horror stories of students losing credits, failing classes, and falling behind while in quarantine last spring. Whether it be the format, lack of skills, or support at home, we still need to do our best to help those students.

Looking for Early Warning Signs

In an effort to keep students on track, we at St. Ignatius Middle and High School look at early warning signs for student dropout beginning in sixth grade. We currently use seven metrics: age, grades, attendance, mobility, discipline, credits, and previous dropout occurrences. Montana has a system that puts this data into a formula and outputs a likelihood of dropping out.

  • Age: If a student is a year older than their current grade—for example, a 16-year-old freshman
  • Grades: If a student has received two or more failing grades in a semester
  • Attendance: If a student has missed more than nine days in a traditional school semester schedule or missed 10 percent or more of all days
  • Mobility: If a student has changed schools during the school year or previous school years, since every school change presents a greater likelihood of dropping out
  • Discipline: If a student has been out-of-school suspended more than one time in the school year or previous school years
  • Credits: If a student is more than two credits behind the expected number of credits to be gained each year
  • Previous dropout occurrences: If a student has dropped out of school previously and returned to school

Are these the only factors we look at in identifying students at risk of not graduating? No. We  also take a look at several other factors, some anecdotal, to get the whole picture for each of our students.

Before St. Ignatius ever used this warning-sign data, we used—and continue to use—an actual paper referral that teachers fill out and turn into our multitiered systems of support (MTSS) teacher team. The referral addresses other items that could only be witnessed by teachers in a classroom or school setting. The referral addresses social and emotional support, mental health concerns, failure to complete work, motivation, peer interactions, and health and hygiene. The form goes out after the first 20 days of school and then is sent back out after 60 days in case students needed help but were doing fine at the 20-day mark.

‘Drafting’ Students for Support

What happens after all of this data is compiled?  We sit down as a staff and draft students. When I say “draft” students, I mean we go through the list of at-risk students, and teachers sign up to serve as each one’s mentor for the school year. From then on, we will set up meetings with the student, mentor, parent, and the MTSS team. We sit down together and work to come up with a plan of interventions or accommodations that we all agree should help that student be more successful in school. Parents and students appreciate these meetings, and it gives all of us a sense of accomplishment when we can forge these positive relationships with struggling students and their families.

These coordinated efforts have worked. In the seven years of working through these processes, St. Ignatius High School has increased its four-year cohort graduation rate from 77 to 93.5 percent, decreased its dropout rate to less than 2 percent, and has a college attendance rate greater than 80 percent.

Whether you’re an award-winning school or not, tracking and looking at the early warning signs of student dropout is non-negotiable. If your school isn’t currently doing this, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and rally the troops. After all, it’s what’s best for kids. 

Shawn Hendrickson is the principal of St. Ignatius High School in St. Ignatius, MT. He is the 2020 Montana Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@ShawnHend76).


  • Kim Mikkelsen says:

    Wonder if retired folks might “adopt” for a year? Might be a huge vetting process though.

  • Sheldon Shepherd says:

    There are a lot of parallels in post secondary higher education- SKC has a similar system in place n early warning system in place for student retention, give Selina Kenmille a call when you get chance n see if there’s any extra avenues we may have that you can add to your system. Great Job Shawn Hendrickson, keep up the great work.

  • Michele Paine says:

    Keep up the good work, Shawn! You have made an impact on your rural high school. I worry about the future. We are headed into challenging times, as our pandemic schooling will produce more kids at risk of not graduating.

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