Reversing Reluctance

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Educators often refer to the “reluctant learner,” the student who does not have the time or the desire for schooling. “They just don’t want to be here,” teachers say with resignation.

It is worth examining this “reluctance.” Our experience in working with such students has taught us that it’s wrong to assume they just don’t, or won’t, “buy” what school is selling. In fact, when it comes to helping these young people learn and grow, we ask: Who is really the reluctant party—the students or the adults responsible for them? And how, we ask, can the nation’s teachers and caregivers reverse reluctance to help every child achieve full potential?

We’ve found some answers to those questions—in part, by spending time with young people, especially those in the school-dropout pipeline, listening carefully to what they say, and watching intently what they and those around them do. Our organization, Communities In Schools, or CIS, has been seeking out and serving reluctant learners, dropouts, and those on the cusp, for more than 30 years. Working with nearly 2 million young people and their families in 27 states and the District of Columbia, the organization links caring adults and other community resources with schools. We try to do this in ways that help young people learn, stay in school, and prepare for life.

Part of the formula for our work has come from our own lives. Many of us dropped out or were “pushed out” of school ourselves. But we were able to make the personal connections with adults that led us to alternative programs, and ultimately to a better, more productive, and more rewarding life.

Seeing school and the future through the eyes of our students has opened our own eyes to a new way of thinking. And some impressive results have followed. While fewer than half of all low-income and minority students in the United States complete high school, 85 percent of CIS students do, and two-thirds of them go on to some form of postsecondary education. In Georgia, the birthplace of the CIS “performance learning center” model, more than 75 percent of center students who were classified as seniors in the fall of 2006 graduated in 2007. Nearly all of them had either dropped out or were on their way to dropping out before joining the program.

Why does this program work when others have failed? We have found that overcoming students’ reluctance to learning requires both a personal and a systemic approach.

Systemic. Schools and school systems must put as their highest priorities maintaining the importance of relationships and respecting the value of each person. This commitment should be demonstrated by everyone—from the school board chair to the cafeteria cook—because overcoming reluctance begins with caring about and believing in students. The whole system, not just our teachers, must live it.

Education schools usually don’t offer courses in how to teach the reluctant learner. School leaders must be deliberate and direct about making “customer service” and connections with students a part of the daily routine. Each year, before school starts, we send out letters telling parents how glad we are to have their children in our classes. We also schedule time to meet and talk with students and their families, and to discuss with the parents specific ways they can help make their children more successful in school.

Personal. Our goal, as we work with young people individually, is to help them discover what we call the “I cans”: (1) I can learn; (2) I can have a reason to learn; (3) I can control the learning process; and (4) I can help others learn.

Adults love the notion that kids must ‘take responsibility,’ but too often they believe this should happen just by saying it.

According to one study, among New York City students who started out in the high school class of 2003, 93 percent of the eventual dropouts were overage and undercredited. Only 19 percent of those who graduated were overage and undercredited during their time in high school. Many reluctant learners who have these characteristics are laboring under the terrible and tragic assumption that they cannot learn. Caring adults need to help them see that they are capable of and deserve better.

Once students see that they can learn, we must convince them that there is a reason to—one that inspires and motivates, even when the going gets tough. Too often educators presume it is the customer’s responsibility to buy the product, rather than our job, as sellers and packagers of education, to create both the environment and the message that will motivate students to buy in to the learning plan we offer.

A healthy relationship with a caring adult has been the strategic building block of Communities In Schools since its inception in the early 1970s. Healthy relationships help students realize that they are in charge of their destiny. Adults love the notion that kids must “take responsibility,” but too often they believe this should happen just by saying it. When we adults demonstrate responsibility in action—“if it’s to be, it’s up to me”—children can visualize the idea and seize it as their own. At CIS, students who previously missed entire months of school now never miss a day; many arrive early and take careful notes, forgoing their previous habit of arriving at lunch time and slacking off from there.

Community is the difference-maker. As CIS co-founder Bill Milliken writes in his book The Last Dropout, this is really an adult problem. It represents the failure of adults to, as he puts it, “provide and model a community that acts as a safety net for young people.” Communities own schools, but frequently forget, ignore, or abdicate their responsibilities to children for most of the day and year. Kids are in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 180 days a year. But they are in their homes and communities from 3 p.m. until 8 a.m. during school time—and 24/7 for the remainder of the year. In fact, from birth to the age of 18, children spend more than 90 percent of their lives outside the schools.

Our group has learned how to bring together the people, agencies, and organizations within the community that can support schools by doing the things that schools themselves cannot, particularly connecting to those students whose academic success and social well-being are threatened. We’ve had success linking external supports to the schools and aligning them to support the schools’ responsibility for attendance, grades, and graduation. These include domestic-violence interventions, job training and placement, dental care, mental- and physical-health care, child care, parent education, and more.

When we listen to the stories of students who dropped out, struggled in school, or became overage and undercredited nonachievers, we are often struck by these young people’s creativity and intelligence. Many have survived challenges in their lives, within their families, and on the streets that would have crippled their peers headed to Ivy League schools.

Their failure is at least as much a failure of school systems and communities as it is their own. We need new forms of schooling that teach key academic content in ways that engage these students and prepare them for successful futures, and we need to help them build strong relationships with adult mentors who will support their efforts to stay in school and succeed. And we need to link schools and communities in mutually beneficial, two-way relationships that provide young people with a healthy preparation for a productive future.

We can reverse reluctance: Disinterested and disengaged students can become motivated learners. Low achievers can be supported to reach higher levels. Young people with a history of failure can be directed toward a future of success through education.

As school leaders, parents, and community members—the adults—it starts with us. If we believe in students and set high expectations for ourselves, our staff members, and our students—“reluctant” learners can transform themselves into resilient learners.

Vol. 27, Issue 45

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