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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

June 26, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Don’t call them dropouts: a report on the nation’s nongraduates

"Not all dropouts give up. Lots of us think every day, 'Man, I do want to go to school, ' especially in this economy," says says Selena Jiles, a student in a Kent-based dropout re-engagement program called iGrad. Jiles spends some of her time caring for her cousins including, Gladys Duncan, 5. IGrad was the focus of a January Education Lab story.

“Not all dropouts give up. Lots of us think every day, ‘Man, I do want to go to school,’ especially in this economy,” says Selena Jiles, a student in a Kent-based dropout re-engagement program called iGrad. Jiles spends some of her time caring for her cousins, including Gladys Duncan, 5. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times.

This is the time of year for celebrating graduates, loudly and happily. Yet we shouldn’t forget the students who left school without a diploma weeks or years before their classmates crossed the stage.

There are a lot of them — 19,000 in Washington’s class of 2013, or about 24 percent of the nearly 80,000 who started high school as freshmen four years before.

Nationally, the number of students who don’t graduate on time stands at about 800,000, according to a new, national report from America’s Promise Alliance, a national coalition of nonprofits, businesses, communities, educators and policymakers.

The Alliance titled its report “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” because many of the 200 young people it interviewed asked it to stop using that term.

They may not have graduated, the interviewees said, but they haven’t given up. Many are enrolled in high-school completion programs or have returned to school.

That was the most heartening news in the report, which also included survey results from an additional 3,000 students. Despite the many, serious difficulties many young people face that prompt them to leave school — homelessness, poverty, a parent’s illness, addiction, imprisonment or death — many find ways to come back.  As the authors put it:

Without denying the harm that some of these young people have done through violence, gangs, and drugs, we invite readers of this report to also see the resilient, determined, and hopeful community members our team met in the summer of 2013.”

They ask readers to listen, without preconceptions, to what these young people say about why they didn’t finish.

As other reports have found, the Alliance concludes that students usually leave school due to a number of compounding factors that add up over time.

In a similar project in this state, the Washington Student Oral Histories Project has done in depth interviews with about 50 Washington students who have left school or are truant. Those researchers have concluded that the path to leaving school is often a long one, with plenty of opportunities for adults to step in along the way and help.

In a report in 2013, the project wrote:

A number of seriously truant and ‘dropped out’ students maintained a tentative connection to school over long stretches of time … Many stopped and started school multiple times before finally giving up on graduating.”

That group’s most recent report delves into math as an obstacle for many who didn’t graduate. Sixty-eight percent of the students the group interviewed reported having math difficulties at some point before they left school. Only half reported as serious problems with reading and/or writing.

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