Every year, roughly half a million students drop out of high school. While much of the national conversation to improve K-12 education revolves around what happens in the classroom, research shows that young people often leave school because of life challenges outside of it.
According to Don’t Quit On Me: What Young People Say About the Power of Relationships, there are seven “adverse life experiences” that put students at the highest risk of dropping out.
1. Being suspended or expelled. Suspensions and expulsions more than double the odds that a young person will drop out of high school. Moreover, research shows that harsh, zero-discipline policies unfairly target students of color and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. To help more young people graduate, the report recommends ending these policies.
2. Becoming a parent. Teen parenthood more than doubles the odds that a young person will drop out. Additionally, more than half of teen mothers never graduate from high school.
How can parents help? By talking to their kids about sex. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, nearly nine out of 10 young people say they would find it much easier to wait to have sex if they were able to have an open, honest dialogue about sex with their parents.
Schools can also help teen parents graduate by offering daycare programs and parent classes, like Northwestern High School in Maryland.
3. Having friends who leave school. This experience also more than doubles the odds that a student will drop out. One study found that peers can alter another student’s opinion of academic-related issues after just three minutes of conversation.
On the other hand, peer learning and accountability can promote healthy collaboration and encourage more students to feel confident, empowered and engaged in the classroom. Don’t Quit On Me recommends engaging young people as sources of peer support: “With a bit of coaching about how to give constructive feedback, students can support each other’s learning in both classroom and after-school settings.”
4. Dealing with a major mental health issue. As of 2010, roughly half of all students living with a mental illness dropped out of high school, the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
Moreover, students with unidentified and untreated mental illnesses are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental illness.
Several major cities, including Chicago and Baltimore, have already incorporated comprehensive mental health services in their schools. Don’t Quit On Me recommends implementing higher-quality assessments and more studies examining how trauma and mental health relate to academic trajectories over time.
5. Not feeling academically prepared for school. Several organizations provide supplementary teaching, free resources and after-school programs that work on developing academic skills, including: Afterschool All-Stars, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Get Schooled, Higher Achievement, Jumpstart, Partnership for After School Education, Tutor.com and YMCA.
6. Being homeless. Nearly 40 percent of homeless Americans are under the age of 18. As of 2014, 1 in 3 American children live at or below the poverty line, one of the worst rates amongst the world’s developed nations.
The Atlantic published a profile this summer on San Diego’s Monarch School, which caters exclusively to homeless students. In addition to education, Monarch is also able to provide its students with health care, transportation, food, clothing, therapy and counseling.
Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, whose family was evicted from their home when she was a junior in high school, recently advocated for better housing policy programs in the Huffington Post.
7. Moving homes. Students who transfer schools are more likely to fall behind and less likely to graduate. Additionally, multiple transfers increase the chances that a student’s records will be lost or incomplete by the time the school year ends.
One young person interviewed for Don’t Quit on Me explained how lost records interfered with his high school graduation: “The staff called me into the office and said they gotta hold me back for two years because my old school that I went to back from ninth and tenth grade, they said they lost my credits and I wasn’t in their system no more. So I told them I wasn’t staying. I rather just drop out and do what I do.”
Kansas City addressed many of the issues associated with high student mobility rates during its GradNation Community Summit in September.
These are just a handful of ways that individuals, institutions, schools and communities can help more young people handle the challenges in their lives and go on to get an effective education.
To start a dialogue around the struggles young people face in your area and come up with more solutions, check out the discussion guides for community leaders, educators, individuals, grantmakers, policymakers and youth workers.