While it may not appear so at first reading, there is some truly hopeful and promising news presented in the newly released report Don’t Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation. With the support of Target, America’s Promise Alliance’s Center for Promise has produced a “must read” report of its research, based on surveys and interviews with teens most at risk for not staying in high school and graduating. Before I say more, let me quickly summarize two fairly recent studies that essentially reported on aspects of the same issue and came to many of the same conclusions. If three independent and credible bodies of research all lead to similar conclusions, then we have to imagine that there’s something powerful going on, right?
In 2011, Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton published The Coming Jobs War. Gallup researchers sought to answer the question, “what will it take for America to be competitive in the 21st century job market?” Chapter 10, “K-12 -- Where Entrepreneurs are Created” immediately caught my attention. If you haven’t read it, please do and form your own conclusions. In addition to their findings and recommendations for specific community-based actions, part of the research really resonated with me: “Gallup… found that kids drop out of school when they lose hope to graduate. They lose hope of graduating when they don’t feel excited about what’s next in their lives. Students need to be rescued at or before the moment they lose hope in the future. And when they aren’t caught in time, they don’t just drop out of school, they drop out of life” (the bold is mine for emphasis). In fact, Gallup scientists indicated that hope predicts academic success and graduation better than grades or test scores do.
In 2012, Civic Enterprises and America’s Promise Alliance produced Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America’s Forgotten Youth. Amidst the data about who the opportunity youth were (and still are) and what factors drove them to leave school before graduating, the hopeful news was that most of them started out life with big dreams that include graduating from college (53 percent). Meaning, they started out with hope in their futures. Unfortunately, 14 percent never saw themselves graduating. Despite challenging life circumstances, they remained optimistic about their futures. Nearly three in four (73 percent) were very confident or hopeful that they would be able to achieve their goals in life.
Further, while they accepted responsibility for their decisions, they expressed time and again the need for support from peers and mentors; family, schools and others to help them achieve their goals. More than 60 percent wanted to do something that would help them become productive citizens.
So, now we come to Don’t Call Them Dropouts. It too offers hope amidst data and findings about who is most at risk for not finishing school and why. And how large a pool of America’s young people we could lose if we don’t get this right, now. It’s staggering. But not hopeless. At Camp Fire, we are integrating the science of thriving into all of our programs for children, youth and teens. This science represents the nexus of adolescent brain development and psychology. We know that every kid needs three champions to thrive: family, school, and community. We know they need coaching and support to learn how to navigate life’s obstacles and stressors. They need the skills required to develop their “resilience muscle” (heck, don’t we all?!). Every kid, from every walk of life, needs that. But the young people represented in this study, as with the other two mentioned, need all that and much more because the obstacles they talk so honestly and openly about aren’t the typical stuff facing most middle class kids.
Don’t Call Them Dropouts is divided into three sections. These findings and recommendations align with, and add even greater depth to, the other studies mentioned. First, the authors present four major findings. While much of it may not be new, what is compelling is that we hear it directly from the young people most affected--not just the researchers. For example, the power of positive, constructive adults in their lives is mentioned frequently as a key factor in their decisions about school. They reinforced the need for champions and how much those connections mattered to them. Given their life circumstances, they’ve been forced to develop resilience and coping skills that, in some ways, would be the envy of many of their more well-established peers. For example, have you ever noticed how hard it is for the consistently “straight A” student, or school’s top athlete, to cope when they get their first “C” or play their worst game ever?
The second part of the study outlines Five Conclusions based on the findings and concludes by offering Five Recommendations. Which is where we get to the hopeful and promising part I mentioned at the outset. First and foremost, these “at risk” young people want to stay in school, graduate and succeed in life. Despite everything, they retain the hope that they can achieve their goals. And readily acknowledge that they need encouragement, guidance, and the right support systems to do so. They truly need all three champions in their lives to prevail: their families, their schools, and their communities. As Jim Clifton stated in his book, “This is not a public schools problem. This is a whole city problem….one student at a time, one school at a time, one city at a time.”
Finally, and this should be more good news--young people desperately want to, and should, have a strong voice in the design of solutions that might really work for them. In Camp Fire, we call that “youth voice, youth choice.” This study makes clear that they know a lot about what they need. They just don’t know how to get it, nor do they have the resources. They want to succeed as much as we want that for them.
The recommendations put forth are eminently doable. Not easy, not quick, likely painful and definitely exasperating because everyone “seated at the table” won’t get their way. But doable over time, nonetheless. The solutions offered won’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement. We’re spending millions annually now and haven’t solved the problem. But, (and I usually never start sentences with that word)— it will only work if all of us who call ourselves their champions come together and work together, with these young people and their peers at our side. Let’s get going. We have a whole generation of “opportunity”counting on us.