As the child of two successful high school dropouts, I can personally attest to the fact that some people, through luck or grit or a combination of both, will rise above their circumstances to become prosperous, contributing members of society. As the dropout specialist in a public school district, I can also show a corroborating success story for every at-risk factor on the federal and state indicators lists (for instance, a homeless teen mother who went on to graduate from high school and college and become successful). What I cannot do, unfortunately, is propose a silver bullet or tidy package of dropout prevention strategies that will “fix” the dropout problem in our public schools.
With all the research at our disposal, why have we still not developed the vaccination to save these dropouts? Well, because it’s complicated. The decision to drop out of high school does not happen overnight. In fact, it doesn’t even happen in high school. If we follow the bread crumbs back to the original source, we discover that the kids who stopped coming to high school are the same kids who disengaged from teachers and student groups in middle school – the same kids who could not read in the third grade. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. If we make sure every third grader can read, then we would eradicate the dropout problem, right? Again, it’s not that simple. If we could answer (and then ameliorate) the question, “Why can’t these third graders read?” then we might be on to something.
Public schools are equipped to identify who cannot read, which means we can predict with some clarity who will drop out of high school some years down the road. The trick to dropout prevention is uncovering the why (they cannot read).
Many of the reasons why a child cannot read begin at home, before they show up at the schoolhouse steps, and research shows that this complex interplay between home and school shapes a student’s destiny. Studies have identified variables associated with dropping out. Some of these variables cannot be altered by the school, e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, native language, region, mobility, ability, disability, parental employment, and family structure. Other variables can be improved by the school, e.g., grades, disruptive behavior, absenteeism, school policies, school climate, sense of belonging, parenting, attitudes toward school, educational support in the home, retention, and stressful life events.
Public schools have vastly expanded their resources to improve student success before students even show up at school, including Early Head Start, Head Start, and parent education. What else can we do?
We will keep taking whoever shows up, regardless of the unalterable variables, and we will continue to improve access to resources that the creators of public education could have never foreseen being under our purvey, such as hygiene needs, health care, vision wear, individual and family counseling, social services, crisis assistance, and mental health services.
So, although we know there is no simple silver bullet to fix the dropout problem, we will continue to join hands with families and trudge the road together to raise and educate the whole child.
For more information about Shelley, please visit the “Guest Blogger” page.