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The Dropout Cure:
Students Seeing Their Own Future

Fourteen urban school districts have on-time graduation rates lower than 50%; they include Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver and Houston.”
USATODAY.COM, 6-20-06, at

The U.S. is suffering from a continuing school dropout crisis.

The dropout cure is to connect students with their own futures in as personal and credible a manner as is possible. Each student must know what dropping out means to their future opportunities. They must understand the value of education. This message must be delivered in a Achievement & Goals Archivemanner students will accept and believe. Statements by teachers are not enough. Research studies and statistics are not enough. Pleadings by parents are not enough. Students must be placed in a situation where they can discover this message, understand it, and embrace it themselves!

The more closely they can identify with the person delivering the message, the greater the potential it will be accepted.

Dr. Daniel Losen, a senior researcher with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, is quoted in the 3-3-06 Christian Science Monitor ( as saying: "A personalization of high school - helping kids feel engaged and part of a community - can be a big factor in keeping them in school.”

One way schools can connect students with their own futures, personalizing their educational experience, was started in Dallas at an inner-city middle school in 2005. It was started with the strong support of parents and is popular with students and with staff. The Middle School Archive Project is an application of the time-capsule project idea often used by teachers as a class project to help focus students on their futures.  However the Archive Project expands the project to provide all students in the school with this same focus on their own futures. It is done annually, on a much grander scale, and offered to all 8th grade students to send the critical message of how valuable their plans and work for the future are.

The Archive Project involves a 10-year time-capsule and class-reunion system that provides a physical connection to each student's future. The Archive is a 350-pound vault, bolted to the floor in the school lobby, under spotlights. Such security and prominence hints at how valuable plans for the future are. The Archive has 10 shelves inside to hold letters, one shelf for each 8th grade class for 10 years. The letters are held until the 10-year reunion for each class, November of that 10th year. At the end of that 10th year the shelf must be cleared of letters so that year's 8th grade class can have the same shelf to hold their letters for the next 10 years and continue the tradition. Remaining letters not picked up at the November reunion, or before May, are mailed to the address students placed on their envelope 10 years earlier. It should be an address at which someone will still be living, a relative or friend, who can get the letter to the former student if they are unable to come back for the 10-year reunion, or to otherwise pick up their letter themselves by May of that 10th year.

Students write their letter to themselves the last month of their 8th grade. This letter should be about their achievements and include stories from their life1. It will document their efforts toward personal growth and their goals.  It is not mandatory that they write this letter. That decision is best left between them and their Language Arts teacher. However, only students who have written letters will have their photo taken with the others in the class who have written letters for the Archive.


Students who have written letters pose in front of the Archive with their letter, their teacher, and the other members of their Language Arts class who also wrote letters. After the photo, each student, one by one, places their envelope into the Archive where it will stay for a decade.  The next day they receive a copy of that group photo with information on the back about their planned 10-year reunion. Students immediately value these photos, and usually sign each others photos after receiving them. This is the evolving tradition surrounding the Archive Project.

Almost all students say they will be back for the reunion. Even if only a few return, a powerful witness will begin. At their reunion these 23-24 year old alumni, after opening the Archive to receive their letters, will be asked to talk with current 8th graders about their experiences.  What advice would they give these students? This "Recommendations for Success" will focus on questions they may received from the decade younger students such as; "Would you do anything differently if you were 13 again?"

The 10-year reunions will begin in November of 2014. With the former students returning, 8th grade students will see more clearly where they themselves may be in 10 years. Their focus on the future will be more clear. They will see young adults who were in their exact position 10 years earlier. They will be encouraged and challenged to think of what they themselves will be saying and doing in 10 years. How will they achieve their goals? As former students return to meet with current students, we should hear repeated the lessons experienced teachers have often heard big brothers and sisters giving their younger siblings: "Do well in school." Sometimes we hear more painful messages shared like: "Do not drop out like I did!"

The annual mentoring from students returning for their middle school 8th grade 10-year reunion will become a priceless feedback tradition for the benefit of all. 

But long before the reunions start in 2014 we are seeing significant progress! Students are staying in school in greater numbers. The transition from 9th to 10th grade is where over 55% of all dropouts have been lost in Texas during the past decade. This is where we are already seeing progress.

Most Archive Project students attend high school at Pinkston and Sunset, two high schools in Dallas that as recently as 2005 had some of the highest dropout rate records. Fewer than 40% of 9th graders were then graduating with their class. That is now changing!

The average 9th to 10 grade promotion rate at these high schools has grown from an average of 60.4% for the 10th grade classes from 2000 to 2005.  Now that promotion rate is up to 71.9% for the 10th grade class of 2008-2009 for both schools combined.

Another gain is that now each of these high schools have the largest senior class that they have ever had throughout the 12 year record available. This senior class of 2009 were the 8th graders in 2005 who were the first students to write letters for the School Archive. Both Pinkston and Sunset have also increased both their 10th grade and 11th grade numbers.  The only decrease in enrollment is in the 9th grade numbers as more students were now passing directly on to the 10th grade without a failure. That means these schools together have gone from 3.6 percentage points below the 64% Dallas ISD 10th grade 5 year average promotion rate up to 2005, to 71.9%, a rate 2 percentage points above the promotion rate for the 10th grade class of 2008-2009 in 2008 Dallas ISD! (An Excel format copy of the spreadsheet with Pinkston and Sunset enrollment numbers during these years is linked here so numbers may be manipulated and more easily verified.)

It is not certain that the Archive Project is the reason each of these students remained in school, but the progress is certainly in the right direction! The 10th grade class of 2007-2008 was the first 8th grade class to spend their 8th grade year passing the School Archive every day in their middle school lobby, and then write letters at the end of the year to place into that Archive. 

This 10th grade class for 2007-2008 will be the graduation class for 2010. If their progress continues, the Class of 2010 will have the highest graduation rate of any class that has graduated from either Pinkston or Sunset High School in over a decade! This is certainly a positive achievement for a project costing taxpayers less than $2 per student.

A survey (linked here) of the 400 8th grade students in 2007 verified the popularity of this project among students. It was found that the letter writing process alone increased the percentage of students who were planning to graduate high school and continue their education after high school by over 20% between the time the survey was taken initially and then 11 days later after the letters were written. This is a win-win process.

 An example of a Middle School Archive in a School Lobby to help students think more often of their future and the letter they will write.
The Achievement & Goals Archive Lounge at Quintanilla Middle School, Dallas, Texas.

The Middle School Archive Project is one way to simply and credibly help students focus on their own futures. Such intrinsic motivation is well known to be the most powerful deterrent to dropping out, as well as a deterrent to the attraction of gangs, violence, and the probability of an unplanned pregnancy. Students must know that through consistent effort, and the exercise of that most valuable muscle - their brain2, they will succeed.

We must develop and expand more methods of helping students envision their own futures. Without providing an enhanced vision of the future, no dropout effort will ever achieve its full potential.

Bill Betzen, LMSW (Emeritus)
March 2009

Achievement & Goals Archive

This safe contains letters written by Quintanilla 8th graders to themselves about their lives, achievements, and goals. They will return to open these letters in ten years. On their return alumni will be invited to speak with students of the most valuable lessons they took from Quintanilla. What would they do differently if they were 13 years old again?

Achievement & Goals Archive

Archivo de los Logros y de las Metas

Esta caja fuerte contiene las cartas escritas de los alumnos del 8vo grado para a sí mismos sobre sus vidas, logros, y metas. Volverán en diez años para abrir estas cartas. Al regresar, seran invitados para hablar con los estudiantes sobre las lecciones más valiosas que tomaron de Quintanilla. ¿Qué harían diferente si tuvieran 13 años nuevamente?

Above is the wording and photo from the sign hanging inside the Plexiglas door of the Archive.

1  Dr. Robert Coles in his 1989 book "The Call of Stories : Teaching and the Moral Imagination" provides powerful support for the value of having students write their stories. This book has profound potential applications within the Archive Project.

2   Dr. Carol S. Dweck of Stanford published her masterpiece, "Mindset: A new Psychology of Success," in  February 2006.  It ultimately may have the most profound impact on the Archive Project.  If the Middle School Archive Project can be another force in helping all teachers and students move toward obtaining the "growth mindset," described by Dr. Dweck, then the world of education will begin a sustained revolution. Her research indicates that students do better in school who are told they can get smarter if they train their brains to be stronger, like a muscle.

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