02 July 2009

Turn on, Tune in, Don't Drop Out

The other day, I was shopping for some garden needs at Home Depot. An enthusiastic young man helped me pile bag after bag of mulch onto a cart---and even loaded them into my car. I chatted with him, asking if he was done with school for the year. "I don't go to school anymore." Hmmm...I thought. He seemed high school age. He went on to explain that he had dropped out because his mother had become very ill and he needed to support her. He wants to get his GED someday and perhaps an AA from the local community college...but in the meantime, it seems rather sad that this boy didn't feel like he had any options when he had to make the choice of family vs. finishing high school.

Usually, dropping out of school is not a single event, as this young man described. Typically speaking, students who leave school before graduation disengage over a long period of time. Not showing up to school one day is just the final act. It is estimated that one in four students in Washington state doesn't reach the finish line---and I would expect our rates are fairly average. This creates quite a burden on the rest of us, whether or not we realize it. From my dissertation:
Students who drop out of school not only affect their own lives, but also have a societal impact. As a group, dropouts earn lower incomes and experience higher rates of unemployment (McIntosh, Flannery, Sugai, Braun, & Cochrane, 2008). For the more than 1.2 million students who did not graduate in 2008, this represents a loss of over $300 billion in lifetime earnings (DeyĆ©, 2008). In addition, dropouts have a higher rate of substance abuse issues and health problems, costing Americans over $17 billion during their lifetimes. There is also a greater than average cost for crime prevention and prosecution in those geographic areas which have a concentrated population of dropouts (McIntosh, et al., 2008). In looking at the benefits to society by increasing graduation rates, it is estimated that more than $300 billion could be added to the American economy if by 2020 students of color graduated at the same rate as their white peers and there is a potential $8 billion reduction in crime spending if the percentage of males graduating high school increased by a mere five percent (DeyĆ©, 2008). Finally, Murray and Naranjo (2008) point out that there are societal costs to the dropout issue which are difficult to quantify: “negative effects to the knowledge base, creative contributions, scientific progress, and democratic processes” (p. 146). Although educators tend to frame the dropout issue in terms of high school, these problems begin much earlier. The act of dropping out is a culmination of many factors and it is important to begin the examination of these issues, including student motivation, during early adolescence (McIntosh, et al., 2008). The ability of society to solve the issue of dropouts is critical to effecting change on many fronts.
I was thinking about this again after reading an article from a recent edition of Education Week (reg. req'd) on Preventing High School Dropouts Can Start in 4th Grade:
Risk factors for dropping out include low academic achievement, mental health problems, truancy, poverty and teen pregnancy.
But here's a shocker from Lynne Strathman, director of Lydia Urban Academy in Rockford, Ill., a small faith-based alternative program for dropouts.
Strathman says the one thing that she consistently finds is that "the last time these students felt successful was the fourth grade."
That's right: Fourth grade. Which means parents and teachers may be ignoring years of red flags.
Here are a few of the issues related to teenage dropouts:
  • Adult responsibilities, from work to child-rearing. Among girls who have babies at age 17 or younger, 60 percent drop out of high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Udell said boys who become fathers are at higher risk too.
  • Truancy, learning disabilities and mental health problems. Strathman said kids who can't succeed academically often become truants because school is "so frustrating to them. They're labeled that they're lazy, but they don't know how to function in school because of a learning disability or a mental health issue." Low achievement leads to behavioral problems: "They felt like failures, and they made themselves get kicked out."John Stack, administrator of the Life Skills Center of Akron, Ohio, an alternative school for kids ages 16-22, said it's not unusual for dropouts to enroll in his school "at a fourth-grade reading level. We're trying to get people to understand that if these kids go from a fourth-grade level to a seventh-grade level, that's progress."Only 64 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, with lack of English fluency and inadequate early schooling in other countries among the factors.But kids from affluent, educated families drop out of school too. Reamer said that in those cases, truant or defiant teens may be academically capable, but often come from "a family where there's a lot of chaos, where parents may be divorcing, or where there may be alcoholism or mental illness. I don't suggest we have to tolerate or excuse the behavior. But it requires quick, constructive intervention and skilled professional help."
  • Boredom. Nearly half the dropouts in a 2006 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said they left school because it was boring and irrelevant.
  • Lack of extracurricular activities. Stacy Hansen, drama director of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, says kids who aren't engaged outside of class risk becoming "disconnected to the high school community." A club or activity "creates an immediate family, a place where they belong and they can just be safe, a place where they're known by their first name and they can connect, whether it's arts or athletics or mock trial or dance, or outside of school, a church group or tae kwon do," she said.

While I admit that this list is fairly reductionist, I have to think that the things listed here are a good start and do not represent insurmountable issues by schools. At the very least, the costs to implement them have to be far less than what taxpayers spend to deal with dropouts later.

1 comment:

Joan said...

I want to comment on this:

"Boredom. Nearly half the dropouts in a 2006 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said they left school because it was boring and irrelevant."

This starts earlier and earlier because of the focus on testing and how NCLB has impacted how we teach in the elementary grades. My greatest challenge is trying to keep my average and above average students engaged because so much of our effort is focused on those struggling students.