When Aaron was 16 years old, he dropped out of school to support his family as a roofer after his mother underwent surgery and couldn’t work.
“The bills weren’t getting paid, and I knew I could pay the bills – step up,” Aaron said. “I never took on responsibility like that before in my life.”
These young people often struggle with overwhelming issues that make school less of a priority, according to “Don’t Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation” from America’s Promise Alliance and its Center for Promise at Tufts University.
“In Arizona, we know that a disproportionate number of students stopping school are low-income and Latino,” wrote Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation in the report. “Even more troubling is that the existing Latino academic achievement gap could be exacerbating the problem, leading to increased numbers of low-income and Latino students dropping out.”
School and community leaders “must recognize the red flags that have become reliable indicators for students dropping out,” including the death of a friend or family member, moving from home to home or changing schools, having a parent in jail and becoming homeless, Luna wrote.
“There’s a lot going on in these young people’s lives,” said Dr. Jon Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise and research associate professor of child development at Tufts University.
These young people show more strength, character, grit and perseverance than many people give them credit for and “when given the opportunity and provided with the connections, these young people can thrive,” Zaff said.
What they need are more easy on-ramps back to school and “an environment for these young people that makes education more salient to their lives and more plausible,” Zaff said.
“The dropout crisis isn’t just about those students stuck at the starting line, it’s about us, our community and out future,” Luna wrote.
Why do kids leave school?
To understand teens’ reasons for leaving school, researchers interviewed 212 18-to-25 year olds in 16 cities across the nation, including Tucson, and surveyed 1,942 young people who left school and 1,023 who graduated.
Teens described a cluster of factors that led to them leaving school, including toxic environments at school, home or in the community, a lack of relationships with caring adults and community institutions, and a lack of academic, emotional and social support to help keep them on track.
“A lot of times kids drop out of school because they feel that it’s not relevant anymore or they don’t have a whole lot of support,” said Jansen Azarias, founder and executive director of Higher Ground in Tucson, a non-profit organization that strives to increase students’ academic success, increase their confidence and build them into community leaders. “Or they’re really low on credits, and it becomes hard for them to recover from it.”
Teens in the south Tucson area often deal with a lack of family support and poverty, Azarias said.
Many young people who dropped out said their parents “got a divorce or that something happened in their family that causes them to really put a lot more in their backpack instead of just school work,” Azarias said.
“At an early age, a lot of our kids have experienced traumatic things. You’re in sixth grade and you see your Dad getting arrested by the SWAT team, or immigration issues, or something as traumatic as watching your Dad abuse your Mom, or drugs in the home,” Azarias said. “Then it becomes an internal issue where they feel they don’t have what it takes, and that no adult has really invested enough time in them to build that character, to build that driving force.”
In the report, about 30 percent of students who left school said they were abused, 22 percent said they were homeless, 19 percent had to work after a parent became ill, 18 percent had spent time in juvenile detention, and many left school to take care of younger family members.
Sara said many things led to her dropping out, including “pain, hurt, being abused, being raped … just a lot of things like seeing my homeboy stabbed to death, having a cousin that was murdered when I was five, just a lot of things. I started hanging around with the wrong people, gang members, getting into crap like … just a lot of stuff. And I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that it is okay to be doing all that.”
Thomas said he took care of his younger brothers while his mother was out on the street doing drugs and that at some point “it was too late to go back to school.”
Amy was in her last year of high school when she asked school officials if she could get a month off to help her mother who was recuperating from an operation. Amy said she was told she’d have to stay at school for two more years, so she left school.
“These are the students who’ve left school behind for reasons that are often as reasonable as they are devastating,” wrote Laysha Ward, president of community relations for Target Corporation in the report. “And they are coming back, or trying to, because these students have one thing in common: the desire to create better lives than the ones they have been given.”
What brings young people back to school?
Young people who return to school often say another person – sometimes their own children – inspired them to go back, and for some the motivation comes from “finding that deeper reason to go back to school,” Azarias said.
To bring the high school graduation rate from the current 80 percent to America’s Promise Alliance’s goal of 90 percent, the report recommends listening to young people to gain a better understanding of their experiences, surrounding the highest-need young people with extra supports, creating a cadre of “community navigators” to help students stay in school, identifying, supporting and spreading promising approaches, and involving young people in designing and implementing solutions that will work for their peers.
“Every kid is different, and we cannot develop a program and think that kids will fit into that cookie-cutter approach,” Azarias said. “We have to fit our program to the kid, not the other way around.”
Despite their resilience, many young people can’t move past day-to-day coping without additional academic, emotional and social support from caring adults and community organizations.
The best way to re-engage students is by developing relationships with adults and organizations who are invested in students’ education, Azarias said.
Higher Ground connects with young people’s teachers to learn what’s going on in class and their parents to find out what’s happening at home, Azarias said.
These teens get support from “a group of people who are consistently talking to them, building relationships with them, encouraging them, finding them real resources and connecting them with the right resources to overcome their obstacles,” Azarias said.
Opportunity Youth Network led by the Aspen Institute connects and re-engages millions of youth ages 16-24 who are not in school and are not working, and Helios Education Foundation supports these efforts in Tucson, Luna wrote.
Organizations like United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, Massachusetts and Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles have people “whose job it is to go out into the community and to over time in a never-give-up kind of mentality connect with these young people,” listen to their experiences and let them know that “they matter to somebody,” Zaff said.
“They might spend two to three years to create the type of connections so these young people will want to come into this youth center,” Zaff said. “It’s not this idea that you didn’t connect with us within a day, or a week, or within a month so it’s on you now, it’s your fault. It’s more about saying we recognize it takes people different amounts of time to understand where to find these connections and opportunities and we have to stick with them until they find that out.”
Another key is teaching teens how to use coping mechanisms to deal with ongoing issues, Azarias said.
“There will be days it’s hard to go to school, your kids are going to be sick, and you’ll be like it’s so much easier if I just don’t go to school,” Azarias said. “But at the end of the day remember your end goal, and remember that there’s no shortcut to that end goal.”
When community leaders listen to what these young people face each day, and understand their experiences, they can make more informed decisions, and involve young people in the solutions created in their own communities, Zaff said.
“Many of these young people want to give back to their families and others in their communities,” Zaff said. “These are young people who are assets to their communities, not a deficit to be managed.”
“Our future depends on our recognition that every students deserves to and must possess the competitive edge that will not only propel them to future success but secure the very economic fabric of our country,” Luna wrote.