Students who are likely to leave school without graduating send predictable signals, researchers have found. But are educators listening?
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Jasmine, 17, was one of the few white students in her large Indianapolis high school, and says she was regularly harassed for being white. She hated school and began looking for a way out.
She knew that Indiana required school attendance until age 16, so she figured she would be there as little as possible until then. (A 2006 law, enacted to battle the state’s high dropout rate, raised the compulsory-attendance age to 18.)
Jasmine reasoned that she could get a General Educational Development certificate as her mother and her older sister had. Her sister dropped out of 11th grade and eventually became a certified nurse’s assistant; she now has two children and receives welfare.
Jasmine skipped school a lot her freshman and sophomore years. But many teachers didn’t notice her absences. “I’d come back,” she recalls, “and they’d say, ‘Are you in this class?’ ” One teacher promised to give her a C as long as she stayed in the media center during his class instead of leaving the building.
Her algebra teacher pushed harder to ensure her attendance. He asked why she was gone from his first-period class so often, and she lied that she had trouble getting up in time. He called her daily at 7 a.m. to help her get going.
“That was the one class I always went to,” she says. “Since he had these expectations, I would go to his class and then just leave school later. I did the best in his class, too. I got B’s. I liked it the best because I felt welcome.”
That effort wasn’t enough to keep Jasmine from getting expelled for poor attendance, though. Part way through sophomore year, she enrolled in New Beginnings, a small alternative high school run by the Indianapolis school district. She feels the adults at New Beginnings watch over her, and she is earning straight A’s.
She had a baby in December, and a New Beginnings teacher visited her regularly to make sure she kept up her studies. Becoming a mother has fueled Jasmine’s determination to finish her education. Due to receive her diploma in the winter of the 2006-07 school year, she says she intends to go to college and then medical school to become a plastic surgeon.
“I want to be something,” she says. “I look at my mom’s life, and my sister’s life. I’ve lived without electricity. I’ve lived without heat. I never want to live like that.”
Student Portrait by Tom Strickland for Education Week