The Story on this Kid
“That’s the story on this kid. Right there,” the woman in the counseling office patted the thick file.
The file followed Cornelius everywhere he went, growing with every new home, with every new school, with every fail, with every fight, with every year. Its contents coffee-stained and curled at the edges, passed through too many hands, like a hot potato no one wanted to be holding when the music stopped.
Years of half-baked plans, lackluster report cards, and hastily scribbled discipline referrals, all culminating in a carbon copied dropout form too cheery a color for the occasion.
The paperwork documents moments in time from perspectives that were never his own. All that’s left to tell is the story of another young man out the door. Like so many others, reduced to the files they leave behind.
We’ve come to think of the trajectories of students like Cornelius as almost inevitable. Their stories tragedies unfolding just outside the school doors and, inside, educators virtually powerless to change them.
The numbers and files can’t talk back to correct us. Can’t sound the million echoes behind them. The stories of students lost in those numbers and an educational system that too often treated them as little more.
But what if they could talk back? And what if they told us that we got the story wrong? That the numbers are not nearly as inevitable as we believe, and schools’ roles in creating them, not so insignificant.
The story that follows is true, based entirely on interviews with a young man I started getting to know five years ago, along with notes from his school file. His name is Cornelius. And while this young man you are about to meet is a unique and very special person to me, the truth is that Cornelius’ story is all too common, versions of it echoing from the national statistics and the experiences of young people I talk with all the time.
Together, Cornelius and I offer you this story, as he tells it — and as I heard and even saw some of it — from the beginning. Really hearing his story is, I hope, an opportunity for educators to examine the often gradual processes by which students disengage from school — and, if we’re honest, by which educators disengage from students — and spark conversations about how schools can systematically break what has become a too common narrative that somehow never quite tells the full story.
The following discussion questions are designed to engage school leaders and their staff. However, we want to welcome parents, community organizers, students, and others who care about our schools (and the students in them) to participate by tailoring these questions to fit their discussion groups.
1. What are your initial reactions to Cornelius’ story
a. Was this a familiar story? Were there any parts that surprised you?
2. Were there any pivotal points in Cornelius’ journey where his trajectory could have been altered? What would it have taken to make this happen?
a. For example, what do you think about the art teacher’s actions? What opportunities did she have? How about his middle school principal?
b. What would you have done to try and help Cornelius?
3. What behaviors or other trends are signals that a student is struggling or beginning to disengage from school?
4. What is your experience responding to students who are struggling? What have you done to try to re-engage them?
a. Were there times when your interventions were effective? What was different from the times when your interventions were ineffective?
5. What kinds of supports do struggling students need? What processes are in place at your school to identify struggling students and ensure that supports reach the students who need them?
a. What resources would help your school more effectively reach struggling students like Cornelius?
6. How are students and their caregivers, if at all, included in decisions and planning related to their academic performance and success?
7. What are some intervention strategies or supports your school could implement to re-engage and support students?
Not Just This Kid’s Story!
by Hilary Tackie
Although “Butterflies in the Hallway” details the journey of a single student, it echoes the trajectory of many other students who leave school before graduation day and reflects findings from the dropout literature: (1) No single factor accounts for a student’s decision to drop out; (2) dropout is related to both a student’s experiences inside the school building and outside, in their family and community; and (3) dropout is not an event, but rather a process that often begins early in a student’s educational career.
As complicated and varying as these factors can be, there are many actions that educators can take that work toward preventing dropout, even during high school. Below we provide basic information about engagement, disengagement, and dropout in an effort to expand this narrative beyond Cornelius and provide information about what efforts can improve outcomes for students.
I. The Current Situation
Each year the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) calculates the national status dropout rate. This number represents individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not enrolled in school and do not have a high school diploma or equivalency credential, such as a General Educational Development certificate. In 2012, the status dropout rate was estimated to be 7 percent — the lowest rate in a decade. However, the rates — 12 percent — were worse for low-income populations, as well as for African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos at 8 and 13 percent, respectively.
In addition to the status dropout rate, NCES calculates the event dropout rate, which represents individuals who were enrolled in school, were expected to return, but were not enrolled in grades 9-12 by Oct. 1 of the following year. In 2009-10, NCES reported a 3.4 percent event dropout rate, which represents over 500,000 dropouts that year. This rate has not changed much over the past few years — NCES reported a rate of 3.3 percent in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.
The decreasing status dropout rate and an increasing graduation rate clearly demonstrates that America’s dropout situation, which has been referred to as a “crisis” and an “epidemic,” can get better. In 2012, the NCES Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate exceeded 80 percent for the first time. Despite this accomplishment, the breakdown shows that students of color and low-income students have yet to reach that milestone. One barrier is that many students of color and low-income students attend what have been termed “dropout factories,” or schools that fail to graduate more than 60 percent of their freshman class four years later. GradNation reports that, in 2014, 23 percent of African American students and 15 percent of Hispanic/Latino students, (compared with 5 percent of white students) attend dropout factories. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, this is progress: In 2004, a decade ago, 46 percent and 40 percent of African American and Hispanic/Latino students, respectively, attended schools where graduation was not the norm.
II. The Process of Disengagement
Students do not wake up one morning and decide to drop out of school. Dropping out of high school is, for many students, the culmination of a long history of increasing disengagement.
School engagement is typically measured by a student’s academic, social, and extracurricular school participation; their positive feelings about teachers and the school environment; as well as their investment in learning and willingness to put forth effort. It is a strong predictor of graduation and is also tied to better academic performance and overall well-being. In comparison, disengaged students often display behaviors such as chronic absenteeism, course failure, disruptive behavior, feeling bored or unchallenged, and social isolation. One review of the literature on engagement and motivation finds that between 40 and 60 percent of high school students are “chronically disengaged.”
While a disengagement trajectory is triggered by many factors over time, a weak support system for students is a commonly cited cause. Students who feel that their school environment is highly impersonal, neglectful, or against their personal success are likely to disengage from school. So, too, are students who feel their teachers have low expectations and standards of performance. This type of thinking is often internalized, leading students to believe that they are not capable of performing at high levels.
Without effective intervention, students who are no longer engaged can end up dropping out. The good news is that engagement is malleable and responsive to changes made to the school environment.
III. Dropout Prevention and Re-engagement: What Works?
When asked why they dropped out, students often respond that they were absent too often, they did not like school, or they could not keep up academically. Thankfully, there are actions schools can take to identify and provide intervention for these students — bringing them back into the building and engaging them in learning.
For example, research conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) showed that graduation can be predicted with 80 percent accuracy based on whether students qualified to move on to 10th grade and had not failed more than one core academic course. The use of the CCSR early warning indicator has helped keep Chicago students in school and greatly increased the city’s graduation rate. Tracking truancy and achievement data not only allows struggling students to be identified, it also helps schools to identify and address potential institutional problems. For example, using data to identify schoolwide patterns can help schools to recognize the individual talents of teachers and place students accordingly, change the upcoming year’s master schedule to offer the classes that students need to catch up, and determine other supports students may require to succeed.
So what works? What do engaging schools look like?
Engaged students report feeling supported, challenged, and respected by their teachers. Their classrooms utilize curriculum that is both rigorous and feels relevant. Engaging high schools also make an effort to smooth the transition from middle school and work hard to catch early those who struggle. These schools hold high expectations for all students, but are also highly responsive to their students’ needs.
About This Series
Written by playwright-researcher Brooke Haycock, this Ed Trust series, Echoes From the Gap, puts front and center the stories of students. These are the young people behind the numbers we look at in our districts, offices, and states, those whose lives are deeply affected by — even determined by — their educational experiences.
We share their stories with respect for their privacy, by changing names and omitting details of place when appropriate. And, with respect for their words, whenever possible, we let those words speak for themselves. We do, though, attempt to zoom out from individual student experience to students generally, integrating existing national data to draw larger connections to key issues educators and advocates grapple with as they work to improve schools.