Preventing dropout in Fernão Mendes Pinto School

Introduction

Working on the topic of the “Edu-Living & Edu-Leaving" project - early school leaving - was a challenge both due to the complexity of reasons which may explain the students’ disinterest, failure and consequent dropout, and to the large number of studies and pedagogical experiences that have been made over the years.

On the other hand, being fully aware of the fact that neither an education system nor the socio-economic environment in which students live can be changed in a couple of months, we always admitted that our experiences and reflective work couldn’t be more than a modest contribution to reducing dropout in our school, according to the profile of the targeted students. Nevertheless the analysis and search for strategies to prevent truancy and dropout deserved a big investment and by the end of the project some innovative experiences had been put into practice and considered successful. Throughout the project duration, and together with the accomplishment of all the tasks mentioned in the application form, our experimental work was guided by three main goals:

  • getting a deeper knowledge about dropout

  • promoting an effective teamwork between teachers and older students involved in the project

  • raising students’ well-being and motivation to stay in school and get better results

1. Getting a deeper knowledge about dropout

In order to gather information and different perspectives on dropout and ways of reducing it, all project partners exchanged views and data on the situation in their own countries and invited experts to school to broaden experiences and opinions on the subject matter.

So did the Portuguese team. Meetings with school teachers and others as well as with external entities were held to share knowledge and collect helpful information for the organization of the future work.

Some examples of these meetings were: meetings with the school Headmistress, teachers and others belonging to the school community; meeting with CrêSer (an association that focuses on the importance of emotions for a healthy growing up) ; meeting with Carlos Gargaté cluster of schools (having carried out a project on the same topic); meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Education, the Municipality of Almada, family mediation and Benfica Foundation (with an interesting programme to prevent school failure through sports).

Life stories told by different guests illustrating cases of abandonment and successful return to school were also very useful to show how important knowledge and school can be.

Offering new and challenging activities in a school that provides wellness may motivate students and discourage truancy. Interested in knowing more about the topic “motivation” the project’s team invited Wim Simoens, a member of the Eekhout Academy in Belgium - a well-known training center for education specialists – to come to school. These training sessions were very enriching, since they not only deepened teachers’ theoretical knowledge about the topic but also inspired and helped them to develop strategies to increase students’ motivation. Furthermore, during the transnational meeting in Portugal, all the partners could learn and exchange ideas about evaluation tools used to measure the success of a learning process.

2. Promoting an effective teamwork between teachers and older students involved in the project

One of the innovative and successful strategies was the building of an effective team, made up of teachers and students participating in the project, that together analyzed dropout characteristics in Fernão Mendes Pinto and designed, put into practice and evaluated strategies which aimed at improving well-being, motivation and school results. Having older students interacting, helping, encouraging and praising younger ones was an asset with positive impact along the implementation of the project.

Students who made part of the team gained knowledge about their school, felt they could play an important role in changing other students’ attitude towards school and learning, understood how to implement a project, and were rewarded by gaining their mates’ and teachers’ confidence as leaders. Supported by the school psychologist and other project teachers, this group of students helped to promote workshops and activities proposed by younger students, making them believe changes were possible, with their own involvement, and school results could be much better. Getting advice, help and friendship from these older students was a major benefit much appreciated by younger ones.

Representing a meaningful link in the student-teacher-school chain the older students may play a very important role to reduce dropout and truancy if, along the school year, and working together with teachers and psychologists they help to solve some of the everyday target students’ problems.

3. Raising students’ well-being and motivation to stay in school and get better results

After having gathered information on dropout and analyzed the problem in FMP the project team decided to start its experiences by helping target students change the school atmosphere and building closer relationships - based on respect, trust and affection, between younger and older students.

To reach these objectives target students were given the opportunity to express likes and dislikes about their school and then they were encouraged to choose the way they wanted to get involved in the school environment changes, letting them play an important role in the whole process.

At the same time they were offered different extra-curricular activities – music, dance and sports, which are usually very popular.

These strategies aimed at engaging target students, developing a stronger sense of belonging and motivating truants to stay in school.

On the other hand, and in parallel, another group of older students, the peer counsellors, helped target students:

  • to understand their motivation/ lack of motivation to attend school;

  • to identify wellness/ unwellness factors;

  • to make suggestions about things, activities which could change the school atmosphere;

  • to take action to transform the school;

  • to create a better relationship with school;

  • to deepen their self-awareness;

  • to change their behaviour;

  • to improve their work habits and sense of responsibility;

  • to get better school results

The music workshop didn’t work but dance and sports events joined many students regularly, contributed to a greater communication between students of the same class and students belonging to other classes and gave much visibility to the project. This interaction enabled the launch and successful development of two new activities proposed by target students: the creation of a school newspaper and radio broadcasts.

However the most striking strategy, according to the project evaluation results, was the role played by peer counsellors, whose intervention was planned for three main milestones.

1st milestone: my school

  • identification of major factors contributing to school wellness /unwell ness;

  • identification of major factors contributing to motivation / lack of motivation;

  • identification of strategies able to change unwellness/lack of motivation factors (using decision-making and problem-solving techniques);

  • taking action: sharing responsibilities as active change agents;

  • creating a better relationship with school.

Promoting critical thinking, creativity, cooperation, communication and entrepreneurship, peer counsellors helped target students to observe the reality around them and find out wellness/unwellness factors as well as reasons motivating them/ or not to stay in school. Encouraged to play a proactive role in the transformation of their school, students were asked for solutions and personal engagement concerning strategies to be used in the pursuit of their goals.

This first milestone was a very important one because being aware that their opinions and proposals were taken into account, students’ confidence, self-esteem, sense of belonging and self-satisfaction increased. Trusting their peer counsellors’ help some students started the launch of “Somos Fernão”, a school newspaper, and radio broadcasts.

 

2nd milestone: Who am I?

  • identifying personal strengths

  • identifying personal weaknesses

  • understanding the impact of weaknesses on school results

  • pointing out strategies to overcome weaknesses

  • signing partnership agreements with peer counsellors, involving student and peer counsellor together in the pursuit of a positive attitude towards school and better results.

Not much used to insight and self-awareness exercises, most students found it difficult to point out their own strengths and specially their weaknesses. In this case they often repeated other people’s (bad) opinions about them.

To help students with their self-discovery process they were shown motivational films1 and then analyzed and compared themselves with their protagonists. Once aware of personal characteristics, they identified and reflected on the ones that contributed to school failure and truancy. At last each student signed a partnership agreement with his peer counsellor, aiming at changing target students’ attitudes and work habits in order to improve school results.

 3rd milestone: school attendance and results

Always attentive and helpful, peer counsellors did their best to promote school wellness, to increase target students’ motivation to learn, to strengthen their self-esteem and self-confidence, to advise and support them in the solution of everyday life problems and in their learning process.

Peer counsellors’ action reinforced teachers’ role and were an added value, increasing students’ self-determination and alacrity to stay in school and get better results.

 Conclusions

Gone are the days when access to knowledge was teacher-centered. We live in a new era where partnerships, cooperation, volunteer work and multi-way access to knowledge make us feel the need to reinvent school.

If, despite all the teachers' efforts, disinterest and failure persist, this means we have to re-evaluate everything, to try new approaches, to value successful experiences, even when and specially if they are different from current teaching practices.

The creation of groups with the same interests in common and the launch of activities in which students get deeply involved can motivate them to stay in school, reinforcing their spirit of belonging and preventing school leave.

Peer counsellors’ action helping target students change and make their projects come true promotes satisfaction and wellness at school with positive effects on their attitudes towards learning.

It’s undeniable that attitudes change slowly and we need time to observe its impact on school results. It’s a long process.

However, by the end of “Edu-Living & Edu-Leaving”, we came to the following conclusions:

  • students and teachers directly involved in the project expressed a high level of satisfaction concerning the positive effects of the experience on truancy and dropout prevention;

  • 90% of the students who had peer counsellors in their classrooms found the experience very meaningful and asked for its continuation next year;

  • at the moment the school has already decided to go on using the same strategies in several classes in 2016/2017;

  • new teachers have joined the project team to work together next school year;

  • a group of peer counsellors is ready to offer their volunteer work again and repeat the same experience;

  • the project coordinator has recently been invited by one of the advisors of the Portuguese School Library Network to disseminate the experience with peer counsellors at national level in the context of a programme promoted by the Ministry of Education in order to improve school success.

  • All in all we can say that the impact of the experiences carried out is very rewarding and encouraging.

If on the one hand target students showed such a level of satisfaction; if on the other hand peer counsellors and workshop leaders felt the same; and if teachers and project participants acknowledge the positive effect of the strategies put into practice, this proves it is really worth going on researching and exploring the advantages that the “Edu-Living & Edu-Leaving” experiences have highlighted.

Sources

 

School Dropout Main Reasons  (survey)       

The sample was supposed to be 14 teachers, but only 11 answered the survey (5 from the 3rd cycle courses and 6 from the secondary courses). These teachers are the tutors of the classes where there are learners who are in danger of an early school leaving, as well as the teachers who belong to the project.

 

Our survey was divided into three main groups:

I – Learner / School,

II – Family,

III – Life outside school(Social Life - Unhealthy habits )

After analysing the answers we can draw the following conclusions:

Teachers who teach from the 10th grade to 12th (Secondary Courses)

Learner/ School 1st:

- Lack of Learners’ motivation (6)

- Lack of Family monitoring (6)

Family 1st:

- Emotional (6)

Family 2nd:

- Financial dimension (5)

Social Life (Life outside school) 1st:

- Be a member of a group or a “gang” (6)

Social Life (Unhealthy habits) 1st:

- Ilicit Drugs (6)

Social Life (Unhealthy habits) 2nd:

- Alcohol (5)

- Internet (5)

Social Life (Unhealthy habits) 3rd:

- Eating Disorders (4)

Teachers who teach from the 7th to 9th Grade (3rd Cycle Courses)

Learner/ School 1st:

- Lack of Family monitoring (5)

Learner/ School 2nd:

- School Failure (4)

- Lack of Learners’ motivation (4)

Family 1st:

- Emotional dimension (5)

- School leaving in the family (5)

Family 2nd:

- Financial dimension (4)

Social Life (Life outside school) 1st:

- Influence of environment (4)

- Be a member of a group or a “gang” (4)

Social Life (Unhealthy habits) 1st:

- Ilicit Drugs (5)

- Alcohol (5)

Social Life (Unhealthy habits) 2nd:

- Eating Disorders (4)

For both groups the most important reasons of dropping out school are pretty the same.