Curing the High School Dropout Epidemic
Nearly one-third of all high school students in the U.S. fail to graduate on time. Help turn the tide by making sure your teens are getting the support they need to stay in class and succeed in life.
Donna Serrano knew that her daughter Angelique was teetering on the verge. She'd been excited and enthusiastic as a freshman at Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn, New York, but by her sophomore year the 16-year-old had disengaged from her studies. Instead of her usual A's and B's, Angelique was now getting C's and D's, and lagging badly behind in math. Something in her attitude had changed too. She started acting disrespectful at home, especially with her mom and 14-year-old brother, Kody. Even worse, Angelique was frequently skipping class, hanging out with other troubled kids, and had been in a physical confrontation with another classmate. "I have two older kids, so I know how teenagers' lives can be a real roller coaster," says Donna. "But it seemed like Angelique was headed nowhere but down."
Donna, 47, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Angel, 52, a former food service worker, tried hard to persuade Angelique to crack the books, telling her she needed to finish high school in order to get a decent job. "She's seen how hard her father and I have struggled to raise four children, and I know that she wants a better life for herself," Donna says. Angelique, in fact, did dream of a diploma and a career. Every morning, as she dressed for school, she promised herself she'd get a grip and raise her grades. But somewhere over the course of the day she lost her way. "I felt pulled in two directions, and I didn't know which way to go," she says. "I wanted to graduate, but I wanted to be with my friends more—and I didn't care about the consequences."
Angelique was perilously close to making one of the worst moves a teen can make—giving up on her education and dropping out of high school. Across the country there's an alarming exodus taking place, with 1.2 million kids dropping out every year, or about 7,000 a day. Ultimately, nearly one in three students fail to graduate with their class. The problem affects virtually every community, rural and urban. Nevada, South Carolina, and Arizona, for example, are among the states with the lowest graduation rates in the nation.
Thirty years ago dropouts might have been able to get a blue-collar job that would pay the bills and help support a family. That was then. In today's brutal economy, they are lucky to secure even minimum-wage employment. Just ask Shirley Franklin, until recently mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, where the graduation rate hovers at an appalling 55 percent. "Dropouts are competing with older people with more experience in everything from retail and food service jobs to transportation and light industry," says Franklin, who personally mentors teens in her city. "That's why I'm constantly telling them what they need to hear—that unless they graduate, they're likely to live in poverty."
If dropouts do find work, their pay starts—and stays—low. According to the Department of Commerce, they make about $19,000 a year; over a lifetime, they'll watch as their diploma-wielding peers outearn them by $1 million. Even worse, they're nearly four times as likely to be arrested, and eight times as likely to be incarcerated. "Too many kids drop out and end up in the back of a squad car," says David Kass, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationwide coalition of sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and victims advocating for better schools to help lower crime rates. "It's a cycle we have to stop."
To do that, some towns are resorting to extreme intervention. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the school board recommended firing all 74 teachers at Central Falls High, where the graduation rate is 48 percent. The move was supported by President Obama, who recently proposed giving $900 million in federal grants to states and school districts that turn around—or, in some cases, close—the 2,000 institutions across the country that produce more than half of the nation's dropouts. But the solution also starts at home; after all, it's every parent's responsibility to instill in his or her children the value of education. Learn how to give your kids the encouragement they need to keep them in class, so they can graduate to a bright future.
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.
Who's at Risk?
Hoping to curb the dropout epidemic, schools are launching a variety of programs to help troubled kids reverse course. That's all well and good, but the problem also needs to be addressed at the front end. "Identifying struggling students early and intervening promptly could keep more kids on track to graduate," says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Network. Teachers and parents, he adds, should watch out for the following: Elementary school kids more than two grade levels behind in reading or with a failing grade in math or English; children who transfer several times before the end of middle school; and those who have been held back. Repeated absences may spell trouble too. "A week or two a semester may not seem like much, but before you know it, the actual learning time a child has in a classroom is reduced to the point where he's at risk," says Smink. And as Angelique discovered, playing hooky can quickly become a tough habit to break. "I told myself it was just this one time, but before I knew it, one day turned into the next and I had skipped the entire month of February," she recalls.
High schools are beginning to turn up the heat on truancy. Five years ago Kentucky students with six unexcused absences were sent to court, where judges would issue stern warnings, hold them in contempt if they kept ditching classes, and eventually place them in custody. None of that seemed to help. Now, under the watchful eye of Patrick Yewell, executive officer of Family and Juvenile Services, the state's program has become more targeted, compassionate, and effective. Three absences lead to a meeting between the student, his parents, and a guidance counselor, who sends the family to a mandatory three-hour course on school attendance.
"For 8 out of 10 kids, that's the cure," says Yewell. The other 20 percent get more intensive supervision and intervention from counselors, school administrators, social workers, mental health professionals and community service providers. "Sometimes it's the little things that are keeping them from getting to school—no clean clothes, a broken alarm clock, dental work," says Yewell. "The guidance teams try to pinpoint the problem and address it." So far, they're succeeding: The program, which now serves 6,000 students at 144 middle schools and high schools, has reduced truancy rates by 50 percent.
A Sporting Chance
Getting kids to school may be half the battle, but keeping them focused on the goal line is also crucial. To that end, Georgia has introduced the Graduation Coach program, which could serve as a model for the nation. It allows each of the state's middle and high schools to hire a coach—usually a veteran teacher or guidance counselor—whose job it is to spot teens at risk and motivate and inspire them to push on. Coaches meet with the students about once a week during lunch hour or in study hall helping them smooth out difficulties and set priorities, whether it's nagging them to prep for tests or matching them up with tutors. "Time and again we found that an accumulation of small obstacles lead up to a high-schooler dropping out," says program manager Tom Roman. "The coaches help resolve those obstacles one by one." A collaboration between the Governor's Office, the DOE, and Communities in Schools (a network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to dropout prevention), the program has boosted the state's graduation rate from 71 percent to 79 percent. That may not sound like much, until you consider that last year coaches helped an additional 8,000 students get their high school diploma.
Peer pressure—the positive kind, that is—can also keep kids from derailing. Hoping to create a strong support network for teens, the Taco Bell Foundation for Teens is spending $4 million this year to sponsor Keystone Clubs at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Each group comprises 15 to 20 students committed to staying in school and supporting one another on the long journey to graduation day. To keep their eyes on the prize, members go to job fairs, visit colleges, and attend college application writing workshops. In addition to spreading the word on campus that dropping out is not an option, some Keystone Clubs have even produced public service announcements. "Through peer-to-peer interaction, they do a great job of encouraging teens to think not just about graduation, but beyond," says Sally George, director of the Taco Bell Foundation. "They're helping kids see that high school isn't an end point; it's a springboard."
Back to the Future
For those who have left the classroom, it's not too late. That's the message the Los Angeles Unified School District has been sending out—literally—via Twitter, texts, YouTube and radio ads to out-of-school youth between the ages of 16 and 25 to lure them back to school. (Sample tweet: Did U know high school graduates earn an average of $175 more per week than dropouts? Get your diploma!) Since many dropouts are loath to sit side by side with students who are two, three, or more years younger, a solution may be programs like AdvancePath, which runs self-contained "academies" on high school campuses. "It doesn't make sense to put people back in the exact same environment where they failed," says AdvancePath Chairman John Murray.
Instead, the classrooms look more like giant computer labs, but with carpeting, and art on the walls. Students sign up for a four-hour shift—morning, afternoon, or evening—which they attend five days a week, and work their way through online courses and tests at their own pace. If they're stymied, they can always click a few steps back. And they're supervised by teachers willing to answer questions one-on-one or in small groups. Since 2006, about 2,000 kids, mostly in California, have been enrolled in AdvancePath; among the 900 who have graduated (about 200 have dropped out, and the rest continue to plug away toward their diplomas), 40 percent have gone on to some form of post-secondary education, be it a vocational program, community college, or university, says Murray. "What they've earned," he adds, "is a second chance at success."
The Comeback Kid
Back in Brooklyn, Angelique's story has a happy conclusion. At the end of her disastrous sophomore year, her father met with a counselor, who suggested Angelique transfer to the nearby Liberation Diploma Plus High School, one of the many alternative institutions for at-risk teens that are being opened in cities around the nation. At these schools size matters: Liberation has only 180 students, so truancies don't go unnoticed. Even better, says Angelique, "Every teacher knows every kid's name. If I had a problem, there were many adults who would listen and help me make sense of what was going on in my life. It made me feel respected." The teachers were demanding, but they took pains to make lessons relevant by scheduling frequent field trips and supervising each pupil in a mandatory internship. Angelique was transformed. She found it hard to leave school at the end of the day and volunteered as an office worker and mentor to younger students. Exactly one year ago she got dressed up for the prom—and then donned her cap and gown. As Angelique—who's now considering studying nursing or early childhood education at community college—finally collected her diploma, mom Donna wiped tears from her eyes. "It was an emotional day," she says. "It took a lot to get my daughter there, but in the end, she made it."
An Action Plan for Parents
Teens need plenty of help to succeed in school. Use this to-do list and keep yours moving forward.
Plan ahead. From the first day of your child's freshman year, know how many courses are required for graduation. Each semester, make sure he's enrolled in the right ones—and that he's making steady progress.
Pay attention to attendance. Experts say that high-schoolers who miss two of the first 20 days are at risk of dropping out. "That amounts to losing 10 percent of instruction time, which puts a student far behind everyone else," says Louise Kennelly, director of research at the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit federally funded project aimed at improving high schools by bridging research and practice. And while showing up is crucial, Kennelly adds, being on time helps too.
Watch for warnings. If your freshman is in danger of failing one or more subjects, or she's routinely skipping class, more than her GPA may be at stake, experts say. "National data tell us that we lose many kids between ninth and tenth grade," says Kennelly. "So at this stage they absolutely need to pass their classes. It's a make-or-break time."
Intervene early. Don't dismiss a change in academic performance or skipping classes as a passing phase. The sooner you take steps to get him help, the more likely you can turn things around. Ask his teachers for advice on how to keep him focused. Explore other options as well, including mentoring, tutors, guidance counseling, and online learning programs. For more info, visit the National Dropout Prevention Center at dropoutprevention.org.
Have great expectations. Because teens really do listen to their parents—no matter how much they pretend otherwise—it's important that you encourage excellence at every turn. "Parents should say, 'I expect you to do as well as you can, and I'll support you in every way,'" says Kennelly. "And they should repeat that as often as possible." Graduation is the goal, so make it a family mantra.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.