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Graduation rates up, but more work needed to prevent dropouts

Graduation rates reach historic high but report also sites factors in why students leave school

U.S. graduation rates reached a historic high of over 80 percent in 2012—an increase of about 8 percent over the past decade, says America’s Promise Alliance.

“We’ve made these improvements, but we’re still left with about 20 percent of young people who are on a course to failure,” says Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise at Tufts University, the research center for America’s Promise Alliance.

Rates of unemployment and incarceration are higher for people who have not finished high school, and those who do have jobs earn less than their peers with diplomas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Center for Promise conducted 3,000 surveys and 200 interviews with young people to determine why students leave school. The center’s 2014 report, “Don’t Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation,” found there is no single reason.

Rather, it is a number of adversities, such as incarcerated or incapacitated parents, a community with few options for legal work or recreation, and having to take care of family members.

The report details three major factors:

  1. Toxic environments. Many students who leave school are navigating a negative environment at home or in the community. For example, they have personal and family health issues or are the victims of violence at home.
  2. Relationships with others. If a student does not have a connection with a teacher, guidance counselor, coach or parent, they may find a sense of belonging in gang membership or with other peers who are making bad decisions.
  3. Lack of support. Young people who leave school are resilient, but need help re-engaging with their education. “The salience of school isn’t there because of what’s happening outside the school building, and they aren’t finding the supports they need within school,” Zaff says. Adults who take an interest in the student’s success are key to getting the student to return to school, he adds.

To help solve the problem, the report says, administrators and schools should:

  • Create a system to identify and track at-risk students through the years.
  • Work with community organizations to build a referral system for students who need outside services.
  • Place at-risk students in leadership roles where they can design solutions that will help them and their peers.

How do you think dropout rates can be reduced? Start an education conversation on District Administration's Facebook page.