College & Workforce Readiness

The ‘Dropout Crisis’ Is a Poverty Crisis

By Ross Brenneman — September 19, 2013 3 min read
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Attendance Works, an organization focused on making sure children show up to school and stay there, released a policy brief this week that breaks down why students drop out and how schools can get them back. Over at the State EdWatch Blog, my colleague Andrew Ujifusa details some of the briefing’s highlights.

Many of the reasons given for dropping out involve school climate: Bullying, dangerous routes to school, harsh discipline, etc. All important, as you’ve seen written about on this blog many, many times.

But those are reasons students don’t want to go to school, not reasons that they can’t come to school. The latter, which Attendance Works discusses briefly, carry a lot of influence: Health conditions, inadequate transportation, inadequate housing, etc. All those problems correspond closely with poverty. And there’s not a lot of immediate hope that those problems will get better.

The report offers some advice for addressing such barriers, with outreach being the most prominent idea—using those with strong relationships with the at-risk student to see what help they need. Schools could try to increase access to health care, or provide better transportation, as well. Multiple studies and a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggest that local communities are better at mitigating the effects of poverty than state or federal governments, and such programs bring real aid and significant impact.

However, low unemployment and a healthy economy wouldn’t hurt—jobs are a good anti-poverty device—and five years after the Great Recession, the United States still doesn’t have either. Despite that, anti-poverty programs still face the chopping block every year. (Things may only get worse if the federal government shuts down next month.)

Case in point: In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans plan to offer a bill that would drastically reduce money for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, in a way that would cut an estimated 1.8 million people from its roles. Food stamps are one of the more effective federal safety-net programs, mostly because of widespread awareness. Many federal programs don’t have that luxury, leaving them underutilized or ineffective. A new study of U.S. census data shows that SNAP lifted four million people above the poverty line in 2012:

That same census data, incidentally, show that 46.5 million Americans now live in poverty, a slight increase from last year.

Schools can give out free meals for lunch, and maybe breakfast, but at some point students have to go back to their homes, if they have them, and face the consequences of poverty.

That’s why an idea out of Jefferson County, Ky., to make public boarding schools, seems interesting. The county is studying a plan to create two schools, one for each sex, that would pool together at-risk children with academic promise. That plan is still in the earliest stages, but if realized, it could remove a lot of the barriers described in the Attendance Works policy briefing. The cost—currently estimated to add at least $12,000 per student—makes a scaling-up seem difficult, but it would provide a good starting point for similar ventures if successful. It might not be Hogwarts, but it can be a home.

Research suggests that stabilizing a child’s adverse circumstances can help them recover academically—children can be remarkably resilient—but that stabilization has to happen. Schools and districts can build a great climate, but studies consistently show that climate works most effectively when built on the foundation of a strong economy.

It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a nation to raise a village.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.