It’s that time of year again. Bobbing bunches of “Congratulations Graduate” and “Class of 2014” balloons are tethered to mailboxes, shop windows feature gifts for the grad and my young neighbors step across the threshold festooned in cap and gown. It is a time to celebrate, but also a moment to contemplate why nearly one in five children does not graduate from high school and what we can do to change that.
Often people think that dropping out is an event, but it is a process that takes place over years with an accumulation of events and their impacts, including disappointments and failures big and small. The America’s Promise Alliance report, Don’t Call Them Dropouts, reveals that clusters of factors contribute to students leaving school. Personal and family health trauma, exposure to violence and an unsafe, unsupportive or disrespectful school climate are common experiences that can lead to disengagement and, ultimately, withdrawal from school.
Here’s a question we might ask then: Is there a way to design schools so that all children with risk factors for dropping out can be identified and helped to stay in school? Better yet, is there a way to design learning environments so that children never get to the point where they would consider leaving school?
To do so, we need to understand how where children live and learn makes them susceptible to risk. Science can help. Take the examples documented in the report of young Marty, who watched his cousin die of a gunshot wound to the head; Bertie, whose parents went to prison for gang-related activities; or Bryan, who lived in 60 foster homes in six years. Science tells us that children exposed to a series of adverse events, such as these young people were, internalize those experiences as stress. Such stress makes them far more prone to behavioral issues and poor academic performance. This can produce a cycle of failure and disappointment in which children lose confidence and belief in their future as students and the value of school itself.
The good news is that children’s brains are malleable. Science not only helps us understand what traumatic events do to children’s development, it also helps us see how attachment and positive connections to adults and peers at school can lead to growth in competence and confidence. When this happens consistently, it can reverse harm and change the course of a child’s life. As the report notes, those who said they had a teacher who cared about them were 45 percent less likely to leave school. When children are in safe, nurturing environments that buffer stress and encourage positive connections with peers and teachers, children feel protected and supported and want to stay and learn.
Many children in our nation’s schools, particularly those who are growing up in poverty, are experiencing a storm of events – a perfect storm – but we can see it coming in a recurring and predictable pattern. We can intentionally build fortified environments for teaching and learning to mitigate the stress that impacts how children fare in school – fortified to reduce stress; fortified to promote strong connections to adults, peers, families and communities; fortified to aggressively address academic recovery; fortified to deliver rigorous and engaging content; and fortified to promote attributes common among all successful students. In this environment, a school is filled with adults who fire up their students, grow their confidence, increase their stamina, never give up on them and never let them give up on themselves.
At my organization, Turnaround for Children, we are building fortified environments in partner schools in New York City, Newark, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. This means creating a teaching and learning environment that supports the needs of every student. It means training every adult in the school in practices that defuse disruption, increase student engagement and personalize learning. It means individual support for the students that need it. And it means changing the climate from one that is often chaotic and punitive to one where the assumption is that all children are capable of high levels of learning.
Imagine what could happen if every school had the knowledge, skills and tools to create this kind of teaching and learning environment. Imagine how many more children would cross the stage in cap and gown, diploma in hand.