Original article from Inside NOVA

By Scott McCaffrey

Several years ago, Arlington school officials couldn’t track down a student who had been AWOL from the classroom for days.

They turned to School Board member Emma Violand-Sanchez, who knew the young man, was able to find him and get him back in class. A situation that could have ended as a statistic resulted in a student who graduated high school and now is in college.

That type of story shows that Arlington educators “focus on each student,” Violand-Sanchez said during a May 7 presentation on efforts to further cut drop-out rates.

The good news for Arlington school officials? Trends are in the right direction.

“We have progressively made some nice strides here,” said Superintendent Patrick Murphy, who when he was hired in 2009 was tasked with knocking down a hefty dropout rate that seemed to bely Arlington’s contention of having a “world-class” school system.

From 2010 to 2014, the rate of students reported to the state government as dropouts was cut from 3.5 percent to 1.1 percent. The decline was termed “outstanding progress” by School Board member Abby Raphael.

Raphael singled out efforts of Communities in Schools of Northern Virginia, a nonprofit that sends volunteers into classrooms and provides a range of other support services, freeing up teachers to focus on their classrooms.

The group has worked in Arlington Public Schools at Arlington Mill and Wakefield high schools, and in January expanded its footprint into Gunston Middle School.

To Raphael, that’s just a start – she has voiced the desire to see efforts extend as deep as elementary school, where the seeds of student success, or failure, often are planted.

The Communities in Schools initiative is “not, obviously, the whole answer, but I think it is a big part of the success we’ve had,” she said.

“Bring in those volunteers, bringing in the community . . . is such an incredible investment,” Raphael said. “We haven’t fully harnessed that.”

In the past year, the Communities in Schools initiative has doubled the number of volunteers locally, and nearly doubled the hours of service.

“We’ve had a really good opportunity to dig in,” said Patrick Brennan, the organization’s executive director.

Arlington school officials recently received the blessing of the Virginia Department of Education on a pilot program that will focus on “competency-mastery” in cases where students miss an excessive number of days from class.

Barbara Thompson, principal of Arlington Mill High School, said the new guidelines will help school officials to “truly individualize and personalize learning,” and will mean some students won’t need to repeat classes from the beginning.

That won the plaudits of School Board member Nancy Van Doren. “You really need flexibility,” she said.

Thompson said educators are putting in more early-warning systems to address the potential for dropouts. Like Raphael, she said efforts like the Communities in Schools endeavor pay dividends.

“It’s essential to partner with the community,” Thompson said.