This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The word “dropout” often conjures up a negative image – someone who does not care about school or about getting ahead in life.
But dismissing dropouts as young people who don’t care sweeps under the rug the major educational crisis of out-of-school youth – affecting as many as one-third of our youth nationally.
When we listen to the stories of young people who are out of school, as we did for this edition of the Notebook, we discover that the common image of “dropouts” is usually off the mark.
We repeatedly heard the ways in which Philadelphia students find their high schools a harsh environment. Those who have left school talk about being fearful for their safety in and outside school, being bored by repetitious busy-work in large classes, being caught up in bureaucracy, and being victimized by arbitrary disciplinary policies.
Young people suspended for truancy, lateness, or disciplinary problems talked about feeling “pushed aside.” Many who stopped attending said they had been treated unfairly. For some, the decision not to return to school is an act of “boycotting.”
Most said that nobody even seemed to take notice when they stopped coming to school, let alone talk to them about why they had left or whether they might return. Good data on how many thousands of students have left school without a diploma are lacking. Hundreds of students who have withdrawn from the School District are simply coded “status unknown.”
The official reports say that only two-thirds of the students graduate, and half of the District’s high schools have daily absenteeism over 20 percent. In Philadelphia’s tracked system, low-income, African American, and Latino students are concentrated in under-resourced high schools with low attendance and graduation rates. The districtwide counselor-to-student ratio of one to 400 typifies the insufficient resources.
Sometimes, the decision to leave school – if ultimately harmful – is a rational response to a situation that is not working.
It is difficult to thrive in such an environment under any circumstance. And many of the students attending high school in these harsh circumstances already are dealing with other challenges, such as being a teen parent, a foster child, homeless, or in the juvenile justice system. Many students also encounter bias based on their race, gender, language, or sexual orientation. Most are living in poverty.
How should our schools address these sometimes overwhelming needs?
What’s needed are schools with strong academic and social supports – with caring adults equipped to offer students individualized attention. But in too many instances these students have no one to talk over their issues with, no one who can take the needed time to figure out how to find a way into a program that could meet their educational needs.
The District’s recent effort to create smaller high schools does offer hope of a more personalized school environment. The District has acknowledged the critical need for more high school options that are safe and supportive and more alternative programs to serve students who have stopped attending.
But it is equally vital that these programs boost their academics and offer relevant skills that will assist students in securing meaningful future employment and prepare them to pursue higher education. The number of young people aged 16-24 in Philadelphia who are both out of school and out of work has been soaring. The system’s graduates need to leave with skills in reading, writing, math, science, and technology – not only for their own futures but for the Philadelphia region to have a healthy, vibrant economy.
This is a challenge not only for our high schools. We can see by sixth grade that some students are at high risk. Targeted interventions with these students can get them back on a good trajectory.
Getting out-of-school youth back on track to success in education and employment requires involving not only the School District but the health and child welfare systems, higher education, the business community and the community at large. There are deep, systemic problems that require a concerted, collaborative effort – in which the parties listen to each other, listen to youth, and commit to making sure all our youth have access to a decent education and opportunities for a positive future. In fact, many out-of-school youth we spoke to want to continue their education but need help figuring out how.
One hopeful sign is the emergence of a broad partnership of local organizations and agencies, under the leadership of the Philadelphia Youth Network. Their work is aimed at highlighting this issue by compiling solid information about who is out of school and why, identifying and expanding available services and resources, and working for policy changes and collaborative practices.
It will take a massive, community-wide effort to finally put the issue of out-of-school youth front and center and to generate a major investment of resources and leadership to stem the losses, reverse the trends, and grow a future for our young people.