I stopped attending high school when I was 14. I was aware enough, then, to know that I was different, yet still too young to know why I felt so alienated. School was not a place I felt welcome. More importantly, what school had to offer — a path to college — didn’t seem to apply to poor kids like me.
During the 1980s, there wasn’t as much awareness around helping socioeconomically disadvantaged children succeed in school as there is today. The truth of the matter is that if a child is struggling with basic needs such as access to shelter, nutrition, medical care or emotional well-being, he or she will struggle to engage in school. That was the truth for me.
Transforming myself from a high school dropout to a college graduate took many years. Eventually, I realized that just because a person may meet one social demographic, such as a dropout, at one point in time, it doesn’t mean her life trajectory is permanently stuck there. I’ve lived long enough, and benefited from enough social mobility programs to know that they work — maybe not in the immediate sense, but over the longitudinal course of life.
I earned my GED when I was about 19, then went on to receive a bachelor’s degree when I was 27 and a master’s degree when I was 31.
There are three main things I believe that young people need in order to re-engage in school after dropping out.
The first thing dropouts need is access and opportunity. We need alternative high schools, GED programs and community colleges. We need money to fund these programs. Dropouts need to be educated by professionals who understand the issues that they are dealing with on a daily basis.
Dropouts need encouragement. If you come from a family where higher education was not the norm, your family may simply be unaware of the opportunities that exist through higher education, or the path it takes to get there. I didn’t make any academic progress in my alternative school, but it was there I got the message that even a poor kid like me could go to college and later have an enjoyable career.
It took years to realize my potential, but the seeds were planted by my teacher Linda. She told me that even as a dropout, you can get your GED and then enroll in community college, which is the path that I subsequently took. I needed to hear there were options, even after I’d already messed up.
Finally, dropouts need a vision. Despite the fact that I grew up poor, my mother and grandmother were voracious readers. I never took a childhood vacation to Disneyland, but my mind wandered inside every book I read. I created whole other realities that existed in my imagination based on the written word. Books, movies, and music are all things that can help a person develop a personal vision. Developing a vision is not something that happens overnight, but kids need access to books, music, and media that encourage them to dream and show them other realities, as well as reflecting their own.
Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds need to have access to the tools necessary for self-improvement. They need mentors. They need positive messages to intervene in the negative ones that they receive from society at large, and, in some cases, from their own families.
Kezia Willingham, a former high school dropout, now holds a master’s degree in social work and is employed by Seattle Public Schools Head Start. You can follow her on Twitter at @KeziaWillingham.