School Dropouts: They Are Not What You Think

j0178426Last week, America’s Promise Alliance released a special report on school dropouts, based on research conducted by the Center for Promise at Tufts University. The report offered great news in that the nation’s drop-out rate has declined – 80% of students graduate high school on time, up from 75%. Perhaps more interesting though is that the report delved into the lives of the remaining 20% to find out what happened in their lives and how we can assist youth to stay in school. Pulled from in-depth interviews with over 200 young people and nearly 3,000 survey responses, the study is the largest of its kind about teens who don’t earn a high school diploma. This is what they learned:

There is a misperception by the general public that students who leave high school without graduating are unmotivated, lazy, bored, or troublemakers. The report debunked this myth, demonstrating that most students leave school because they are overwhelmed by the effects of toxic living conditions on their daily lives, including homelessness, violent surroundings, abuse or neglect, bullying, catastrophic family health events, and the absence of caring adults who can help them stay in school. And, these students did not experience just one of these difficult circumstances, but rather the students experienced multiple challenges, which slowly shifted school lower and lower on the student’s priority list. Of students that left school prematurely, 66% experienced 3 to 12 challenges, and almost 25% experienced 6 or more challenges at one time. Sometimes, one more challenge on an already-stressed teen became the breaking point.

“Over and over we heard from young people who wanted to stay in school, but multiple life events  stood in their way of simply going to school and being able to concentrate on learning,” said Jonathan Zaff, Executive Director of the Center for Promise. “Gradually, they became overwhelmed. Perhaps most heartbreaking, they tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to find adults who could help them.”

The report noted that students who are experiencing homelessness were 87% more likely to leave school; those with an incarcerated parent were 79% more likely to leave prematurely; those who changed schools frequently were 50% more likely; those who were abused were 30% more likely; and students living in foster care were 11% more likely to quit their education. These students don’t feel that they “dropped out” of school, but rather stopped attending to cope with their immediate problems, such as working to support their family, helping a sick family member, or finding a home.

One of the report’s most disappointing findings is that, before leaving school, many of these teens reached out to the adults around them, only to feel let down by their attempt to do so. Many kids “are reaching and trying, and sometimes they’re getting the door closed on them, literally and figuratively,” Zaff said. And even if the adults are responsive, many give up too soon: “The assumption is if we reach out to them, and they don’t immediately accept our help, then it’s their fault they didn’t finish high school.”

The report found that most of the students that left school possess wonderful strengths to help them cope with difficulties, such as persistence, courage, and optimism. While these qualities are crucial to helping them overcome their challenges, the research shows that they still needed a connection or support from a caring adult or the community at large to be able to thrive and be successful.

The majority of the students that received support after leaving school, re-enrolled or got their GED, and were engaged in some type of college or workplace development within a few years. Some young people named a peer or an outreach worker as the impetus for positive change in their lives. It just takes one person to make a positive change in their lives. Parents, teachers, bus drivers, clergy, other school-based professionals, after-school leaders, neighborhood adults, and peers all influence young people’s expectations, behavior, and decision-making. The young people who are experiencing multiple adverse events in their lives need caring, combined with connections to people that can help them to solve problems.

We can all be part of the solution. If you know a young person who is affected by risk factors like a death or illness in the family, an incarcerated parent, housing instability, bullying or abuse, or shifting from school to school, take the time to talk to them. Really listen to what’s going on in their life. If you can develop trust with the teen, offer to help them brainstorm solutions to their problems. They may never have been taught how to solve their own problems. Demonstrate the process to them, using our previous blog Teaching Problem Solving Skills. If they can find ways to cope with their circumstances, school attendance continues to be a priority in their life. Education is the key to teens transitioning to a successful adulthood.

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