Don't Call Them Dropouts
A Report from America’s Promise Alliance and its Center for Promise at Tufts University with support from Target
The past decade has seen impressive growth in and commitment to helping more students graduate, fueled in part by a growing body of research on barriers. What has been missing from the current research, however, is a vibrant portrait of young people’s experiences gathered and reported in a way that deepens the national conversation about why some young people are still failing to graduate despite historic advances in graduation rates.
With enthusiastic support from our partners at Target, the research team at our Center for Promise set out to discover what young people say about the experiences that lead them away from high school. We listened deeply to what leads to leaving school before graduation. Throughout the process, our goal remained the same – to hear what young people say about their lives and decisions.
As you read this report, you will notice that we avoid using the familiar term “dropout.” We made this choice for two reasons. First, we heard from young people themselves that this term does not describe their experience of leaving school. Second, most of the interview participants and survey respondents had returned to school or re-engagement programs to complete their education.
The Center for Promise research team traveled across the country to investigate these initial research questions:
- What do young people say about why they leave high school before graduating? What circumstances surrounded the decision to leave?
- What were students' lives like when they left school, and what effects did leaving school have on them and their families?
- Why do young people say they come back to school?
- What opportunities do young people have to re-engage after leaving school, and what barriers do they encounter along the way?
Through systematic analysis of 200+ interviews and nearly 3,000 survey responses, four themes emerged.
Clusters of Factors
Explaining why young people leave high school is at once quite simple and overwhelmingly complex. Young people’s words often illustrate the interplay among factors like absent parents, the impact of violence close to home, negative peer influences, and a sense of responsibility for others. Sara’s story is one example.
We closely analyzed the comments of the participants in the group interviews we conducted. We found that participants across the sixteen cities frequently mentioned 25 different factors or events that influenced their decisions about school. Among these were support and guidance from adults, incarceration, death in the family, heath challenges in the family, gangs, school safety, school policies, peer influences, and becoming a parent. For more information, see Section 3 of the tables in the full report.
“Pain, hurt, being abused, being raped … just a lot of things like seeing my homeboy stabbed to death, multiple deaths, having a cousin that was murdered when I was five, just a lot of things. I started hanging around with the wrong people, gang members getting into crap like…just a lot of stuff. And I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that it is okay to be doing all that.”
Participants in the group interview sample describe environments that can be characterized as “toxic” because of their potential long-term negative effects. The stories we heard from interview participants highlight three pervasive elements of this toxicity:
- Violence at home, in school or in their neighborhoods that they witness or personally endure;
- Health trauma they or their family members experience; and
- Unsafe, unsupportive, or disrespectful school climates and policies.
“Like I said, my father used to beat on me. Never had my mom in my life; she was always on drugs. It was just me growing up watching over my little brothers while she was out in the street doing her thing. So me and my other brothers grew up too quick, took responsibility, we just - it was too late to go back to school.”
School, unfortunately, did not always provide a safe haven from violence.
“People would be outside of the school waiting for us with guns, so I was forced to bring my gun to school.” – Lance
Interview participants in all 16 cities talked about experiencing abuse, being bullied, and witnessing violence. Survey respondents confirm the prevalence of traumatic and stressful life events among young people who dis-engage from school. A large number of interrupted-enrollment respondents reported being abused (30%), homeless (22%), or spending time in juvenile detention (18%). Interrupted-enrollment survey respondents experienced these three types of events with significantly greater frequency than continuously-enrolled high school students. In addition to these experiences of violence, young people often found themselves in the role of caregiver or wage-earner because a parent became ill.
For more details, see section 4 of the tables in the full report.
Yearning for Supportive Connections
Seeking connections with parents, other family members, school professionals, peers, and participants’ own children was a consistent theme. The presence or absence of these connections drove many of the choices that young people made, including about school attendance and completion.
Many interview participants described unsuccessful efforts to connect to helping professionals.
“Teacher didn’t care, principal didn’t care… I told my counselor and a couple teachers, but I didn’t want to because they didn’t care… you know from the way that they come at me on a regular basis… they don’t try to talk to me.” - Antonio
Both qualitative and quantitative findings suggest that several different types of life experiences may contribute to feeling a lack of connection; that young people sought connection where it was offered; and that both positive and negative decisions could emerge from connectedness.
For more information, see section 7 of the tables in the full report.
Young People Leaving High School Display Resilience; They Also Need More Support and Guidance to Thrive
Persistence, personal agency, courage, and optimism about the future shone through the interview participants’ stories. Within the context of the complex circumstances described in interviews and echoed in survey data, staying engaged with school or re-engaging after a hiatus seems like an extraordinary achievement. Bouncing back is the term we chose for the resilience we observed.
Overall, we found that young people who left school have strengths that enable them to cope in difficult contexts. To meet long-term goals like staying in or going back to school, getting a better job, or making positive contributions to their communities, young people needed more than their own perseverance; they need to “reach up.” That is, consistent with the principles of positive youth development, young people began to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally when they were able to connect to individuals and institutions that support them.
Despite their many strengths, the young people we interviewed could not reach beyond day-to-day coping without additional support from both caring adults and connected institutions in their communities. Approaches like integrated student services and comprehensive re-engagement programs recognize the confluence of factors that can lead students out of school.
“I do need an education in this society unfortunately to excel to places I want to be. Eventually, I found this place, [program], and I feel like this a great school system. It’s not traditional but it’s a good place for misfit kids or kids that can’t work well in the traditional schools and just belong here. That’s what we are all here for because we ain’t working well in traditional society or school.”
Some young people named a peer or an outreach worker as the impetus for positive change in their lives. Just as they followed their neighborhood peers into negative behavior patterns, these young people also followed their peers to make a positive change in their lives.
“My homies told me about this program. My friends are the only reason why I'm here.” -Marcus
Despite the challenges they faced, the young people in our interrupted-enrollment survey sample were overwhelmingly on a path to reaching up. All but 36% had completed high school; 18% had completed at least some post-secondary education. Almost half were employed either full- or part-time. Of those who were not employed, 23% were in school.
Students who leave school before graduating are stronger than popular opinion and current research literature describe. These strengths could, with the right supports, allow them to stay in school; and these abilities do, ultimately, help many to re-engage. On the whole, the young people who participated in interviews or responded to the survey display enormous strengths including personal agency, problem-solving, and positive life goals. These characteristics enabled young people to re-engage in their education. These same qualities could also have enabled them to stay in school if adults at home, at school, and in the com- munity had helped them navigate around barriers so that consistent school attendance aligned with their life circumstances.
Students who leave school before graduating are often struggling with overwhelming life circumstances that push school attendance far down their priority lists. Students leave school not because of a particular event or factor, but because circumstances accumulate in ways that push school further and further down their list of priorities. The reasons they cite for dropping out are the breaking point, the end of the story rather than the whole story. Early attention from every available adult – extended family members, school professionals, youth workers, religious leaders, neighbors, and others to specific events such as the death of a family member, parent incarceration, changing schools, or homelessness could slow the rate at which a cluster of events pushes or pulls a student out of school.
Young people who leave high school need fewer easy exits from the classroom and more easy on-ramps back into education. Some young people who stop going to school find it easier to leave school than to stay in or get back in. In other words, there are too many off-ramps and exits that are too easy to take, and too few on-ramps that are too hard to access. Asking teachers, parents, and students to examine the formal policies related to both leaving and re-entry could point out specific ways to help students stay in school or create opportunities for them to re- engage more easily.
Young people who leave high school emphasize how much peers, parents, and other adults matter. Parents, teachers, other school-based professionals, after-school leaders, neighborhood adults, and peers all influence young people’s expectations, behavior, and decision-making. Caring connections that follow students from home, through their neighborhood, to the school building are important. However, caring is not enough. The young people who are experiencing multiple adverse events in their lives need caring combined with connections to people and places that help them solve problems that get in the way of school achievement.
Everyone in a young person’s life and community can do something to help. Everyone – teacher, school administrator, bus driver, clergy, program leader, parent, grandparent, business owner – can make a difference by listening to what young people are experiencing at and outside school. While teachers, counselors, and administrators in high-need schools are often overwhelmed themselves, attentive school leadership, community oversight of graduation patterns, and greater support for an environment that encourages positive connections could all be counterweights to the lack of consistent support that young people say they often encounter from the adults closest to them.
Listen. Our overriding recommendation relates to the impor- tance of listening to young people. Too often, what we think we know stands in the way of knowing what is true for young people who have left school. Take time to understand the circumstances affecting young people who have already stopped attending school or who have recently re-engaged after interrupting their education. Include their voices in discussions about policies, pro- grams, and community activities that affect their lives.
Surround the highest-need young people with extra supports. The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University has developed school-based early warning systems that allow educators to identify students whose attendance, behavior, and course performance suggest that they need extra support to stay in school. We recommend that communities consider how to create similar early-warning supports and systems beyond the school building for young people who are affected by risk factors like a death in the family, an incarcerated parent, housing instability, or shifting from school to school.
Create a cadre of community navigators to help students stay in school. The young people affected by multiple “adverse life events” like incarcerated parents, foster care, loss of someone close to them, witnessing violent events, or financial struggles need a person or series of people who can help them navigate through these challenges and stay in school. Communities can mobilize program-based, faith-based, and school-based leaders to be the “whatever it takes” adults for these young people, working alongside caring parents when they are present.
Follow the evidence. It is essential to identify, support, and spread proven and promising approaches – not just programs, but methods that have worked in one place and could work elsewhere. Both large-scale studies and evaluations of individual programs to date suggest that what it takes is an all-in, never-give-up, holistic approach that responds to each young person’s needs and strengths.
Place young people in central roles in designing and implementing solutions that will work for their peers. Research confirms that peer influence matters. It’s important not only to listen to young people but also to involve them in crafting solutions. Decision-makers in and outside school can seek formal and informal opportunities to include young people’s voices and their activism in efforts to boost graduation rates.
The study utilized an exploratory sequential mixed-methods design. Mixed-methods designs recognize that not all research questions can be answered using a single formulation of data. An exploratory design is most applicable where not enough is known about a given phenomenon to develop theories or hypotheses with confidence (e.g., what is the lived experience of youth who have stopped going to school?) In an exploratory sequential design, the qualitative component of the study is conducted first and facilitates the conceptualization of the quantitative component’s design and analysis. We conducted 30 group interviews in 16 cities with 212 18-to-25 year-olds, using an interactive methodology designed by the Center for Teen Empowerment to build trust and elicit stories from the young people. The subsequent online survey – whose development was informed by the interview data – was conducted with 1,942 young people (18 to 25 years-old) who had left school, as well as a sample of 1,023 young people who had graduated without interruption.
Note: All quotes are from a single individual, referred to by an alias. To protect the young people’s identities, the quotes are not associated with the cities or the programs where interviews took place. For a list of the cities and programs associated with the group interviews, please see Appendix III of the full report.