Mini-documentary brings to life voices of youth that power “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” report

Opinion

Mini-documentary brings to life voices of youth that power “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” report

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

Don't Call Them Dropouts isn’t only a research project. It is a story.

It’s a story we have been eager to tell, and one that has been more than a year in the making.

As a researcher, my job is to document, describe, and estimate what goes on in the world. But, not much analysis is needed when you can hear directly from young people what they need in life and what they can offer to themselves, their families, and their communities.

From their voices, derived from 30 group interviews in 16 cities and approximately 3,000 survey responses, young people who left school before graduating tell us quite a story of adversity they face, and the resilience with which they meet it.

They say that too often their lives are filled with overwhelming difficulties, but that this adversity need not define their destiny. When we hear from them, not just about them, we don’t hear deviants who failed or walked away with juvenile records. Instead, we hear stories of young people who, like those more fortunate, have the potential to thrive academically, socially and vocationally. But they can’t achieve their potential without support.

This is a universal truth for young people, and in “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” we’re just seeing what it looks like when youth are left to figure out hard lives without the guidance and support that most of us took for granted as kids.

The youth we talked to are already taking care of their families, yearning for the social connections for which we all yearn, and seeing a future that includes their educational and vocational success.

What they need are individuals and organizations with whom they can connect, to whom they matter, and from whom they can be guided on their own pathway to success.

My team at the Center for Promise and I are humbled that so many young people across the country opened up to us with their intimate life stories. As you will see in this short documentary, and as Mrs. Powell so eloquently described in her Tuesday blog post, young people in our communities are experiencing abuse they endured by parents, foster parents, or boyfriends, the extreme violent episodes they experienced every day in their neighborhoods, and the neglect they felt in the hallways and classrooms of their former schools.

Too many of these young people did not have enough of the caring, supportive relationships we would want for our own children and all children in our communities. Too many endured excessive amounts of adversity.

None of the young people in this video were participants in the “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” study, but they all fit the criteria of being young adults who did not finish high school on time. The documentary expresses their troubles, and it gives us a good look at their strengths.

They had dreams: becoming a pilot in the Air Force or playing pro basketball. They yearned for connection: with their families, their teachers, their friends, and the other adults around them.

When they did find connections, they were deeply influenced by them, for better and for worse. When Niko could find no other adults to help him, he joined a gang. Later he found a re-engagement center that helped him get back on track so he could care for his daughter.

With individuals and institutions that provide the support, nurturance, and guidance that these young people sought, they engaged, they pursued, and they aspired. They also should inspire in all of us the motivation to reach out to the young people we see walking through our lives every day.

When we reach out, and a connection is made, these young people reach up – and they thrive.