Keeping them in and bringing them back

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What do you call someone who doesn’t finish high school? A new report from America’s Promise Alliance and the Center for Promise at Tufts University is begging you not to call them dropouts. In fact, that’s the title of the report: “Don’t Call Them Dropouts.”

The report finds that students leave for clusters of reasons. It’s rarely just one factor, but instead a combination, that lead students to choose to leave school. While this on its own isn’t particularly surprising, the researchers made a point of calling attention to some very common factors. Being forced into caregiver roles due to family members’ health and finding human connections in damaging relationships or gang membership, for example, stood out as frequent contributing factors. Homelessness and having an incarcerated parent were also strong predictors of leaving school.

Academic problems play a role, too, although the report implies that they should be treated as a symptom rather than a major cause in most cases of students leaving school. Other in-school factors, such as feelings of safety and connectedness, appear to be more directly related to a student’s likelihood of leaving.

Despite all these challenges, the researchers found that most students who leave school display significant personal resilience. The problem is that dealing with the myriad challenges outside school, especially when there’s no feeling of connection to the people in school, makes school seem less relevant. The researchers emphasize the framing of leaving school as a choice, and one that often strikes the people making it as rational.

The personal resilience of these students, and the understanding shared by many of them that education is indeed important, at least in the abstract, means that it is possible to re-engage them in school. Efforts designed at identifying students who have left school and connecting them to different programs or school settings that offer them the sense of connection and the support they weren’t getting previously have shown some promise.

Of course, it would be better to reduce the number of students who leave in the first place. This means concentrating on out-of-school factors such as health security and housing security for families. It also means ensuring our schools are safe and welcoming places where students can find a real human connection (and where they’re not seen as simply a test score).