“Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” the largest nationwide study of its kind to date, found students who leave high school without graduating do so not out of boredom or lack of motivation, but because they are overwhelmed by the effects of toxic living conditions on their daily lives, including homelessness, violent surroundings, abuse or neglect, catastrophic family health events, and the absence of caring adults who can help them stay in school.
“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 Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise. “Gradually, they became overwhelmed. Perhaps most heart-breaking, they tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to find adults who could help them.”
The study found that non-graduates typically leave school due to a cluster of factors, not a singular event. Participants described toxic living environments, often-violent homes, schools, or neighborhoods; instances of personal or family and health trauma; or unsafe, unsupportive school climates.
Participants said they consistently seek supportive connections with others, which can either lead them toward or away from school. For the most part, young people who did not graduate on time felt they were without anyone to set them on a path to success.
Youth repeatedly said they did not “drop out,” but instead stopped going to school to cope with their immediate circumstances, such as going to work to support their family, helping a sick family member, or finding a safe and secure home. Of those surveyed who were back completing their education, connecting with a supportive adult and re-engagement program often provided that path to success.
Based on the insights from youth participants, “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” includes five recommendations for reducing the dropout rate and supporting at-risk youth:
- Listen to young Americans who are struggling to get through high school, as they offer unique perspectives and even overlooked truths about what is occurring in their lives.
- Surround the highest-need young people with extra supports, including early warning systems such as those whose attendance, behavior, and course performance suggest they may need extra support to stay in school.
- Create and support high-touch community navigators to help at-risk youth cope with multiple adverse life events.
- Follow the evidence to find effective solutions. Both large-scale studies and evaluations of individual programs suggest what it takes to support at-risk youth.
- Place young people in central roles for designing and implementing responses. Youth play an important role in finding solutions, not only through their activism, but also by sharing their stories of challenge and ultimate triumph.