School & District Management

Array of Factors Drives Students From School

By Arianna Prothero — May 20, 2014 4 min read

Often, there’s not a clear, single factor but a collision of negative events that can include bad school experiences, abuse, an unstable living situation, or an illness in the family that finally breaks a young person’s will to go to school, according to a new report from a Washington-based, youth-advocacy organization.

In an effort to paint a fuller picture of the lives—and motivations—of young people who leave high school before graduating, America’s Promise Alliance has released a large-scale study focusing on the personal experiences of students who drop out.

To that end, the group’s research arm, the Center for Promise at Tufts University, conducted in-depth, group interviews in 16 cities across the country with more than 200 18- to 25-year-olds who had been out of school for at least four months. Those discussions were used to shape a survey that was then administered to nearly 3,000 participants across the country, a sample largely reflecting demographics nationally. Two-thirds of those surveyed had stopped going to school for at least a semester. The remaining one-third surveyed had completed high school uninterrupted.

The results of the interviews and survey are reported in “Don’t Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation,” which aims to give the youths an opportunity to share their stories.

“We wanted to uplift the voice of young people,” said Jonathan Zaff, the executive director of the Center for Promise and the principal investigator. “The prevailing narrative is one of laziness and boredom. We wanted to understand these young people in a much better way than what is typically out there.”

School ‘A Waste of Time’

One participant in the discussions told researchers that in addition to his father being incarcerated, his mother fell ill, forcing him to become the family breadwinner. “I turned 16 and I started [working construction]. Well, eventually weed and everything played into it so much that I seen so much money in my hands that when I went to school, it seemed like a waste of time,” he said.

A number of participants are quoted in the report, but are not named because of confidentiality requirements. Similar anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the report, augmenting the results with snapshots of the participants’ lives.

Student Persistence

In interviews and surveys of thousands of students who left school before graduating, four prominent themes emerged:

CLUSTERS OF FACTORS. There is usually not a single reason or event that leads a student to drop out of school. Young people who ultimately return to school do so as a result of several influences.

TOXIC ENVIRONMENTS. Young people who leave high school are likely to be living in “harsh” environments, which can include violence, health issues, and unsafe or unsupportive school climates.

YEARNING FOR SUPPORTIVE CONNECTIONS. The types of relationships that students have with family members, teachers and counselors, and peers can influence whether they stay in school.

RESILIENCE AND GUIDANCE. Young people who left school typically had survived difficult circumstances. But in order to thrive, young people need consistent support and connections to people with the capacity to help them navigate around obstacles.

SOURCE: America’s Promise Alliance

Those anecdotes illustrate one of the report’s main findings: It is usually a cluster of factors that lead a student to drop out of school, versus a single event or reason. For example, 66 percent of young people who left school experienced from three to 12 of what the study termed “adverse events,” such as physical abuse, homelessness, or expulsion from school. Only 10 percent of respondents who dropped out—or had “interrupted enrollment,” as the report calls it—and 28 percent of those who stayed in school did not experience any of those challenges.

Although the study has a significant emphasis on why young people leave school, its researchers also asked survey respondents about an issue that is not as well documented: re-engagement, or getting youths who drop out to go back to school.

Some researchers point to a lack of information on re-engagement, compared with a larger body of work on causes and prevention of dropout.

“We don’t have as much policy on recovery in my opinion, so that is something that needs attention,” said Russell Rumberger, the director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “All the accountability in schooling in most states and the federal government has been focused on four-year graduation rates.”

But “schools are really only funded to support those 80 percent who are now graduating nationwide,” not the 20 percent who have dropped out, argues Andrew O. Moore, a senior fellow at the Washington-based National League of Cities’ Youth Education and Families Institute. Interest is growing, however, in dropout-re-engagement research, Mr. Moore added.

The America’s Promise Alliance study, which was funded by the Target Corporation, found that although the need for personal connections could influence a student’s decision to drop out of school, a positive connection could also be the impetus for his or her return. Most of the young people surveyed displayed high levels of resilience that, when combined with consistent support from a person or organization, created a path back to school and on to graduation. For example, 41 percent of survey respondents said they returned to school because someone encouraged them to do so.

Re-Engaging Dropouts

Successful re-entry programs recognize that students’ disengagement from and re-engagement in school are linked, the report says, as well as the multitude of factors that lead to them.

One such organization identified in the report is Learning Works, a charter school with campuses in Los Angeles and Pasadena, Calif., whose students took part in the study.

“The school is designed around the needs of a dropout who is trying to re-engage,” said CEO and founder Mikala Rahn. The school, for instance, hires “chasers” to act as case managers. “Whatever is going on in the dropout’s life, it is the chasers who keep them on track. That could be tutoring, that could be going to health or probation appointments, or it could be finding them a couch to sleep on that night.”

Similar programs are in place at the district level, said the Center for Promise’s Mr. Zaff, who pointed to model programs in Boston and Houston. “In these districts, there are staff who go out into the community to connect with youth who have left school, nurture those relationships, and nudge them toward re-engaging.”

Beyond that kind of effort, the study recommends providing extra support for at-risk students, identifying best practices in prevention and re-engagement, and including young people in the design and implementation of solutions.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as For Dropouts, Multitude of Factors Drive Them Away From School

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