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Curing the High School Dropout Epidemic

Opting Out
teen dropouts
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Nick Higgins

There's a host of reasons why teens quit school: apathy, laziness, the desire to hang out with friends. But something else is pushing them away before they cross the finish line. A 2006 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation survey of dropouts in 25 rural, suburban and urban communities revealed that only 35 percent said they struggled academically and felt they couldn't pass the courses they needed to graduate. Even more surprising, a majority said they had harbored high hopes career-wise but called it quits because they didn't think their classes would help them in real life. "These were kids who wanted to be doctors, lawyers and executives, and who could have gone on to change the world," says John Bridgeland, chief of Civic Enterprises, which conducted the study. "But they didn't see how what was happening in class moved them closer to their goals." In interview after interview dropouts described their best days as those when teachers drew parallels between the lessons being taught and subjects outside of school that the students longed to know more about, whether it was history, music or science. Those good times, the respondents lamented, were few and far between.

Angelique too believed she had the brainpower to graduate. But the social minefield at Abraham Lincoln High—where friction often escalated into fights—was hard to navigate. Worse, she felt utterly isolated from teachers and administrators. "There was no one I could talk to," she says. "The grown-ups really didn't seem to care about me at all." According to the Gates Foundation survey, 43 percent of kids said there wasn't a single adult at their school with whom they felt a connection. Bridgeland says the dropouts he spoke with often began to disengage from school when instructors didn't learn their names or take time to figure out their interests. "Many kids view their teachers as just trying to get through the day," he says. "They read from textbooks or talk to the blackboard and can't be bothered getting to know their students."

Heartbreakingly, nearly everyone surveyed felt remorse about dropping out and expressed interest in returning to school—as long as they could attend classes with people their own age so they would feel less ashamed.