Students who leave high school without graduating often do so because they are overwhelmed by negative factors associated with poverty, a report from America's Promise Alliance finds.
The report, Don't Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young Americans Who Leave High School Before Graduation (72 pages, PDF), found that young adults often decide to leave school as a result of an unstable home environment, abuse or neglect, a family death or other catastrophic event, and/or the absence of caring adults who might encourage and help them stay in school. Based on a survey by the Center for Promise at Tufts University of three thousand youths and group interviews with more than two hundred in high-poverty communities, the report found that non-graduates typically left school as a result of the "cluster effect" — a confluence of often-negative factors associated with their home, school, or neighborhood environments, including placement in foster care, frequent moves or changing of schools, homelessness, having an incarcerated parent, or losing someone to whom they were close. The report also found that connectedness to peers was an important factor in driving students away from or back to school, while for those who became disengaged, long-term re-engagement with school required not only individual resilience but external support.
Many of those who left school told interviewers that they did not "drop out" but stopped attending school to cope with their immediate circumstances, such as working to support their family, helping a sick family member, or finding a safe and secure home. For those now working to complete their education, connecting with a supportive adult and a re-engagement program often provided a path to success.
"Over and over we heard from young people who wanted to stay in school, but multiple life events stood in their way of simply going to school and being able to concentrate on learning," said Center for Promise executive director Jonathan Zaff. "Gradually, they became overwhelmed. Perhaps most heartbreaking, they tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to find adults who could help them."
Funded by Target, the report calls for helping at-risk youth stay in school by taking into account their perspectives; providing high-risk youth with extra supports, including early warning systems; supporting community navigators who can help youth cope with multiple adverse life events; identifying and promoting not only promising programs but also evidence-based best practices; and giving youth a central role in designing and implementing interventions.
"It is easy to label young people who leave school as 'dropouts' and to conclude that these young people are unmotivated, that they are quitters or losers," said John Gomperts, president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance. "We've tried to dig deeper to better understand the challenges these young people face and choices they make....This report gives a crucial window into the lives of young people who choose to leave school, and in this way helps us devise responses that will help young people stay on track to adult success."