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Dropout prevention conference descends on Detroit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — This week, up to 1,000 educators will descend on Detroit to attend lectures and workshops on one topic: how to lower dropout rates in the country, where about 7 percent of students fail to graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The National Dropout Prevention Network Conference, which runs through Wednesday, has a goal of lowering the dropout rates to 3 percent nationwide by 2018.

Through hands-on app making, code writing and seminars such as building relationships, inspiring and engaging students, and learning how to reach the “wounded student,” participants hope to tap ideas that will make that 3-percent-rate goal a reality.

The general conference, which begins Monday, will include breakout sessions such as “Establishing relationships: The key to reaching me,” “10 strategies to inspire and engage every student,” and “Teaching the wounded student.”

What can be done to help students stay on track and how technology can be part of the answer formed the mission for dozens of educators this past weekend, as participants broke into four teams.

Sunday afternoon, at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center on Bagley, the educators presented their work thus far.

The groups were paired with a mentor and someone who can write code.

The technical assistance was provided by the Ford Motor Company Fund and through the Ford STEAM Lab platform.

Final decisions on who placed first through fourth will be made at the conference’s Tech Ed breakfast Tuesday at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, which is where the rest of the conference will be held.

All four groups will walk away with money for their school districts, said Shawn Wilson, multicultural manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund. The winning team will get $5,000, second place will get $3,000, third place will get $3,000 and fourth place will get $1,000.

The competition is to get teachers thinking creatively about how to “embrace an innovation mindset,” Wilson said.

“You can’t spend your way into thinking about education differently,” Wilson told the room. “Only innovation can do that. A lot of people have spent $20, $30, $40 million and not even moved the needle.”

The idea to get teachers involved, not just students, came from Erica Muhammad, Wilson said.

Muhammad, who teaches pre-algebra at Fisher Upper Magnet Academy in northeast Detroit, knew teachers needed to be involved when she was part of a Ford STEAM Lab project, where teachers were prohibited from helping student participants.

This time, the thinking is that teachers will get their students on the STEAM Lab platform, which Wilson said includes teaching aids for coding, and also call on community resources who can fill gaps in the students’ learning.

“I wanted to give students what other teachers gave me,” Muhammad said, which was sparking a love for learning.

Muhammad was part of a group that built an app called ConnEducate, which is something like a mix between Yahoo Answers and a message board that offers the benefits of anonymity and safeguards against trolling. ConnEducate would allow parents to ask questions they might be too embarrassed to ask people who work with their children.

The panel of judges praised ConnEducate for best discovery of a pain point and parents’ difficulty getting advice or answers they need, among the four apps.

Gamepl@n, on the other hand, is designed to help students achieve goals by means of goal setting, coaching and goal tracking. The judges rated Gamepl@n as being the best prototype of the four. It is meant for the user who needs coaching and the ability to track short-term goals.

Gamepl@n team members explained that their app would allow only positive feedback when a student accomplished a goal.

T2P is meant for the teacher struggling with classroom management, and is a messaging service allowing discreet, helpful communications between teacher and parent.

If the parent speaks a language other than English, Google Translate would step in. An archive of the messages would be kept to help gauge progress.

The judges gave T2P the distinction of best business model of the four.

The team at Inspired Minds presented their technology as “the technology version of Pokémon Go.”

The app would be an educational version of a scavenger hunt. Students would see a map and find different tasks at designated locations — stop by an auto dealership to discuss credit terms, stop by a bank for a lesson on economics — designed to teach practical skills to students and to help businesses and community organizations help students.

In helping students understand the implications of, for example, non-payment of bills, it would help car dealers avoid things like repossessions and help bankers avoid foreclosures, all by improving practical education.

The judges felt Inspired Minds had the biggest potential of the four.

The teams will use the time between Sunday night and Tuesday morning’s breakfast to address concerns raised by judges and refine their pitches. They’ll pitch again, then the winners will be selected.

jdickson@detroitnews.com