Dropping out of high school is typically a gradual process that moves from disengagement to disconnection. But the first two years of high school offer a powerful opportunity to change that trajectory, according to a new report.
A study of Connecticut students turns up some interesting findings with national resonance. Even as the on-time U.S. graduation rate reaches an all-time high of 82 percent, far too many teenagers leave high school without diplomas, and then face dim prospects of a good future. The report challenges some assumptions about who these disengaged and disconnected students are.
At the request of the Dalio Foundation, the Parthenon Group and Ernst & Young analyzed data provided by the Connecticut Department of Education, and traveled the state interviewing teachers, principals, superintendents, students, and community workers to compose a portrait of the state’s young people who are at high risk of dropping out, or who had already dropped out. They were surprised to learn that the problem was bigger, and spread more widely across the state, than they’d imagined. (The full report is embedded at the end of this post.)
They found 39,000 disengaged or disconnected young people in Connecticut, a number equivalent to 22 percent of its high school enrollment. Quite the cold-water-in-your-face finding in a state known for its high graduation and achievement rates. (Connecticut got another wake-up call recently from a judge who found inequities permeating its education system.)
“When more than 1 out of every 5 students in the state are disengaged or disconnected, it is reflective of a structural challenge that goes to the core of what is happening in Connecticut high schools—not an issue that is limited to a particular student group, geographic region or handful of schools,” the Dalio Foundation report says.
Disengaged Students: Where Are They?
And smash your assumption that student disengagement is a problem restricted to families of certain income levels or races: 9,000 of Connecticut’s 39,000 are from towns with above-average income levels, and 6,000 are white or Asian, from middle- and high-income households, the report says.
Those young people were more concentrated in cities with big low-income populations, but they weren’t hard to find in suburban and rural areas, either. Nearly every school district had at least one disconnected or disengaged student, and 113 had 50 or more. In 33 districts, there were 250 or more such young people.
In other words: It’s not someone else’s problem. Students who are pulling away from school, and headed for disengagement, are everywhere.
Some of the problem begins in middle school, to be sure. The Dalio Foundation report points to a hefty chunk of students—41 percent—who are disengaged in 8th grade. But that doesn’t mean high schools can evade responsibility with finger-pointing. The report finds that there is a ton of potential to bring many of those students back from the brink if they get the right supports in 9th grade.
The second year of high school isn’t too late to make a big impact, either. One-third of the students who were disengaged in 9th grade manage to re-engage in 10th, the study found. One can imagine that with focused effort and funding, those numbers could rise.
The researchers defined disengaged youth as those who miss 15 percent (about 25 days) or more of school, fail two or more courses, or are suspended twice (or are expelled or jailed) in one school year. Disconnected students are those who disappear from school without transferring, aging out or graduating.
The Dalio Foundation study took an aggressive approach to defining chronic absenteeism, because of an interesting and telling pattern it found in its own data. In Connecticut, students with an attendance rate of less than 85 percent have only a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school in four years. Those with a 90 percent attendance rate—the level the U.S. Department of Education uses to define chronic absenteeism—have an 85 percent chance of graduating in four years.
Those differences are just the sorts of “inflection points” that the study urges policymakers and educators to notice, and to act on. The report urges them to build systems that capitalize on personalizing young people’s high school experience, building relationships that support them, and teaching them how to connect meaningfully with the larger world. That work could catch disengagement before it turns into disconnection.
To seed and support new ways of supporting at-risk students, the Dalio Foundation has launched Connecticut Opportunity Project. It aims to create projects that will reach at least 1,000 disengaged students.
A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.