Gary Hensley is founder of the data-driven, early warning dropout prevention software program, Prevent, and director for student growth at Pearson. Here, Gary shares the background for Prevent, his thoughts on education these days, and what the future holds. “It’s going to take people working together and collaborating to really move the needle,” says Gary. “If you look over the last 10 years, we haven’t raised the dropout rate very significantly. The real question is, how do we take those pockets of excellence and scale those out to the broader system of education?”
Victor: Why did you create Prevent?
Gary: This is one of my favorite questions because it came out of my experience as a teacher and administrator. I was an eighth-grade chemistry and physics teacher at Ensign Middle School in Newport Beach, Calif., in my first year of teaching. I absolutely loved teaching and tried to make it as relevant to kids as possible. I was encouraged pretty quickly to move into administration, and I took on my new role as assistant principal at the 7-12 middle school/high school. My primary role was dealing with discipline issues. As kids would come into my office, I would look up their profiles, and the data I had really felt like autopsy data. By the time they self-identified or acted out in some way and somebody else referred them to me, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. I was constantly trying to fix the problem as best as possible, given where the student was.
I was a relatively young assistant principal – 28 years old at the time – and it all really came to a head for me when a mom came in who was very upset, my first angry parent. The school had sent her a letter that said her child had failed on everything possible, from behavior to grades, and they were just now letting her know. I felt a sense of responsibility and thought she was absolutely right, that there should have been a system in place to alert me, as the person who was supposed to manage this.
Next, I started looking into the data, when I realized that the format in which it was presented was a large part of the issue. I needed to see, instantaneously, everything that was relevant about a particular student. I needed to determine which kids needed help and then to go after them, in a proactive approach.
Then I started exporting the relevant pieces of data on spreadsheets, which took almost four months to complete, and it was clear that this process needed to be automated. I saw this was an essential element in working with kids at risk. So, I quit my job over the summer to pursue it and then took it into the marketplace, securing contracts with a couple of school districts in southern California. Prevent was highlighted at an event I attended, receiving some awards, and Pearson acquired it about a year and a half ago.
What still drives that development is what Dr. Robert Balfanz, research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, put best, that these kids are essentially waving their hands at us and saying, “Hey, pay attention. You’ve got a two-year window to find me, and if you can find me in time, you can help me get to a diploma and to the career of my choice. But if you don’t have a system that highlights me, I’m going to drop out.” So, Prevent is that system that raises that hand electronically, and it’s early enough that something can be done. Someone called this the civil rights issue of our time, and I truly believe it is. 1.2 million kids drop out of school each year. That’s 7,200 kids each day. We have the opportunity to prevent that from happening.
Gary: The name, as well as the website, www.preventdropout.com, is relevant in that our goal is to prevent kids from dropping out of school.
Victor: What does Prevent do?
Gary: Prevent extracts the most relevant pieces of information around students dropping out, which we call the “abc’s” – attendance, behavior and course performance. We take the data on those three essential ingredients out of the student information system, and we run it through an algorithm that produces a singular score.
We also help answer the “what’s next?” after identification, by tracking results of any intervention on a student using “snackable” reports. This is a key finding in the research – to link early warning indicators with interventions.
I think of Prevent like an investor would. As an educator, I’m investing in these kids, so my investment of time should produce results in their lives. So, I need a tool that helps me see which kids are most at risk of dropping out. On the financial reports on CNN and other networks, they show arrows up and arrows down so I can see at a glance how stocks are performing. So it’s that simple – you can look at Prevent and instantly see which kids need help.
Gary: Counselors, teachers and administrators see data, but there’s a lack of information. What’s relevant, and what’s important? With limited time in the day, how can they put it all together so it makes sense? Prevent does that for them. It removes the time and effort it would require to aggregate all that data. Prevent gives them the tools to identify and reach out to kids who are new at risk, as well as monitor those kids they’re working with who are enrolled in interventions. Prevent works with the way schools really work so they can be successful in helping kids graduate. Technology is an enabler of that.
Victor: How would you say Prevent is unique from similar projects or services?
Gary: First, there isn’t a commercially available early warning system out there like Prevent. Most of the products you see out there are on spreadsheets and take an enormous amount of time to export and pull. You typically have someone who’s just a champion – it’s their passion like it was mine – to continue to update those spreadsheets.
The other thing that makes Prevent unique is that we’re pushing data every two weeks. Some of the state longitudinal systems call two months or four months “up to date.” With Prevent, you truly do get an early warning system to reach every at-risk student.
Victor: What companies do you see as in the same market?
Gary: I don’t know of any company that’s in the early warning system market. If you expand that out into data, there are a lot of companies.
Victor: When was Prevent developed and what’s something interesting about its development history that you might share?
Gary: It was developed four years ago out of a personal frustration with what, as an assistant principal, I found when these kids were referred to me. We were doing “random acts of guidance.” We wanted to be intentional, but our operating practice was to be reactive – to help kids who would be referred by an incident, a teacher or a counselor. If you want it to be intentional and intervene in time, you have to have data that drives those decisions.
Victor: Where can you get Prevent now?
Gary: You can get it through Pearson. The best way to find out more information about it is at www.preventdropout.com.
Victor: How much does Prevent cost?
Gary: That’s one of the most exciting things about Prevent. If you consider the cost of dropping out, for a school, the national average that schools lose is about $9,000 per kid. Prevent costs $1.99 per student if it’s a standalone system. If it’s sold in conjunction with a Pearson student information system, it’s $0.99, so the return on investment is significant. I think every kid in the United States deserves an early warning system.
Victor: Any more options?
Gary: Prevent is not a complicated product, and that’s intentional. It’s not one of those products that does a thousand things but you only use five of them. We narrowed it down to the five or six most relevant pieces of information that a counselor, teacher or administrator needs to make good decisions about kids.
Victor: What are some examples of Prevent in action?
Gary: Our first customer was a school in Anaheim, Calif., that was very progressive in their approach to addressing the dropout problem. Three or four years ago, nobody was really talking about “dropout.” They were using the term “at risk,” and it was almost an incomplete sentence. What are they at risk of? The risk is of these kids leaving and not graduating.
Our most recently announced partnership is with City Year, which brings capacity to schools with their core members through AmeriCorps. The focus lists of the 15 kids they follow and serve are now generated with Prevent, and will expand to all City Year implementations.
Victor: Any other examples that you might want to refer to?
Gary: We have a series of ongoing implementations through Farmington Municipal School District in New Mexico, Anadarko School District in Oklahoma, and others.
I guess the best way to sum it up is this: A counselor at a school in Texas was telling her assistant superintendent, “I’m in charge of 300 kids, and I don’t even know where to begin.” The assistant superintendent said, “Give me a week, and I have a tool that will give you that starting point.” They implemented Prevent, and it gave them a list of kids who needed their attention so they could begin interventions right away.
Victor: Who do you see Prevent as particularly tailored for and who is it not for?
Gary: It’s particularly tailored for counselors and administrators, in part because that was my vantage point. That said, it serves a broad audience – anyone who wants to look at student data in a really quick and easy way. Even outside organizations that work with schools are interested in this kind of data, presented this way.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Gary: In the movie “Waiting for Superman,” there was an interesting commentary on kids’ choices around schools and what it means when kids don’t get into a great school. As I go around the country, I see some amazing pockets of excellent work. But I think what it’s going to take is people working together and collaborating to really move the needle. If you look over the last 10 years, we haven’t raised the dropout rate very significantly, corporately. I think the real question is how do we take those pockets of excellence and scale those out to the broader system of education? I’m hopeful that it is possible, and I think there are some really good signs of that related to Common Core State Standards. The states seem to be following those investment dollars and to be willing to collaborate more around that, and that’s a move in the right direction. Data systems are slowly coming together, and that’s great for kids. I’m hopeful that this trend will continue and we can really make a significant difference. I don’t think we can wait another 10 years and make a four percent increase in the dropout rate. Education is that issue that is critical to the destiny of our country. This is the issue that could change the game for the U.S. if we pay attention and sustain that attention long enough to make the difference.
Victor: What are some formative experiences in your own education that helped inform your approach to creating Prevent?
Gary: I was a teaching fellow in North Carolina, and every class I took was around education, including sciences. I had a horrible experience with my student teaching. I wanted to bring relevant information into biology, so I was teaching a game of probability with cards to a class of 36 kids. It was my very first time teaching, and my university professor was there observing. We went through the lesson and I thought the kids had gotten the gist of it. I definitely needed to work on classroom management, but I was trying to avoid the same, old, read-out-of-the-textbook kind of stuff. After that lesson, which I thought went relatively well, my student teacher from the school took me into the back room and told me that if I ever taught that way again, that she would fail me from that class. I needed to stick to what we know works, which was worksheets and overhead projectors. I was really disheartened by that.
So when I graduated, I went as far away from education as I possibly could – into sales. And I did that for 3½ years and ended up owning a direct sales company. I had really wanted to be in education, but I felt that I couldn’t under those circumstances. I came back to education armed with a little experience and some sales background and knowledge, which helped me to see things differently.
From marketing and sales, I have this approach – what if the students had a choice to come to my classroom? As an assistant principal, what if the students had a choice to come to my school? And I would run up against so much resistance to that idea. I would hear responses like, “They don’t have a choice so why are we even talking about that?” But what if they did? Would we treat them a little differently? So I tried to change the smallest things, such as the way the secretaries answered the phone. Eventually, what changed the behavior was a parent saying, “I’ve never been treated so nicely in a school.” Those early experiences helped me to think in terms of giving the best service possible to our kids. We know that’s absolutely essential. And what are the tools that can enable that?
Victor: Have you seen parallels to Prevent in the business world? People often say, “Why, if it’s this way in business, can’t we raise the standard for schools?” Have you seen dashboard-like things similar to Prevent in business?
Gary: There are principles that apply universally to working with people and organizations, whether they are nonprofit, for-profit or schools. I think people are a little misled when they say you need to run a school like a business. There are some nuances that just don’t apply. But the idea that doing business as normal is going to change things is obviously not working, as we have 1.2 million kids dropping out of school each year. So you have to examine your practices.
As far as the tools I’ve seen in business, I think salesforce.com, a hosting solution, is a great example of a very quick and easy dashboard that gives relevant information. Also, the dashboards on CNN or Bloomberg help you make good decisions, as well as etrade. A dashboard needs to be something easy and visually appealing, something that people will use and gives them great information. With Prevent, it’s about kids who are raising their hands. There are some really good practices outside of school and in school that can be leveraged to change and make a difference with kids.
Victor: How does Prevent address some of your concerns about education that you just went over?
Gary: You can’t drop a piece of technology into a school and expect it to change everything. People have done that, businesses have done that and schools have done that. What you have to change along with the technology is the way you operate. Prevent is that first point – you have to start with data. What is the data telling us about these kids, and how can we use that data to be more effective in working with at-risk youth and finding those early warning signs? Prevent eliminates those questions for the school, of who are these kids and what are the early warning signals. They’re right there, front and center for you. The school has that responsibility at that point to act on that data and enroll these kids into the right interventions, providing them with the appropriate level of support to make them successful.
Victor: What’s your outlook on the future in education, specifically in light of the fact that Prevent is now on the scene?
Gary: I’m extremely hopeful. Prevent is the early warning system we need to reduce the number of dropouts in our country. I think every kid in America truly deserves a system that highlights when they’re in trouble. I would want my school to have that for my kids.
Victor: Are there any statistical results, any numbers or anything you could give me about the success of Prevent?
Gary: We implemented the redevelopment of Prevent last summer, and a number of customers have been coming online with us. We conducted some research projects around that and also partnered with Johns Hopkins University and used their research base in our development. Our statistics – from very well-documented research – come out of Chicago and Philadelphia in on-/off-track indicators for graduation. Evidence from one study suggests 75 percent of eventual dropouts can be identified between sixth and ninth grade. Students who have off-track indicators have graduation rates of 20 percent or lower, while students with on-track indicators have graduation rates of 75 percent or higher.
Victor: Anything else you would like to say about results and success?
Gary: I can tell you that for the students who display off-track indicators, they are 75 percent more likely to drop out of school. If a school can move those off-track indicators to on-track early on, their success rates are dramatic. That’s the needle that schools are focusing on – getting those kids who were off-track to on-track and keeping them there and monitoring that progress.
Victor: Any numbers on how many schools you have onboard, how many subscribers, how many districts, anything like that?
Gary: Since our launch in November 2010, Prevent has been adopted by more than 90 schools across the country and that number continues to grow.
Victor: What else could you tell educators or other leaders in and around education about the value of Prevent?
I would say that if you’re looking for an early warning system, something user-friendly that counselors will actually use, Prevent would be that system. There’s a benchmark that my principal always told me about making a good decision in schools. You need to ask yourself, “Is this good for your kids?” and if the answer is yes, then it’s probably a good decision. And I believe Prevent is good for kids. It helps identify them early and keep them on track for graduation.
Victor: Prevent is the major focus, but you’re the director of student growth for Pearson, which sounds like a larger endeavor. Is Prevent one and the same with that title?
Gary: It’s been ever-expanding. Initially, through the acquisition, it was around continuing to develop Prevent from the software side and from my experience as an administrator. That has expanded to really advocating for this issue. We’ve done a ton of work in the partnership arena with organizations that work around the dropout issue in communities and schools. Coming behind this to reduce the dropout rate and really make a difference with kids is a critical role for Pearson.
Victor: Final thoughts?
Gary: This is something I care about, deeply and passionately. I truly believe we can make a difference and change the outcome for the 1.2 million kids who drop out each year.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: [email protected]