Cherie Miller On Boys, High School and Dropout Rates

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I have seven boys, and all of them struggled in high school. None were star athletes or straight-A students. They just wanted to get by, so they could grab their diplomas. They tended to do well in interesting subjects, but in others they just drifted along.

My middle son, Josh, struggled with the transition between middle school and high school. On one of his first days as a high schooler at Wheaton-Warrenville South, [OUTSIDE CHICAGO] a police officer pulled him out of class so that he would have to endure the indignity of having both his locker and backpack searched for drugs by a drug dog. He was clean, but for whatever reason -- maybe it was his long hair or the black circles under his eyes from fall allergies – the authorities were sure he was involved with drugs. Too bad the police didn’t know what I knew: That he suffered immensely with fall allergies, that he always looked like a zombie until first frost, when he would turn back into the Josh I know and love.

Middle school posed no problems, but from the first day of high school, Josh seemed to be profiled as a “potential criminal.” His older brother, Steve, also attended the same high school and would walk in the front door wearing the exact same Pantera shirt as Josh and the disciplinarian would ignore Steve and tell Josh to turn his shirt inside out for a dress code violation. No wonder he felt like an outsider.

And he would have continued that way if it had not been for a caring high school counselor who steered him into early intervention and then into the kind of coursework he thrilled in. In the end, Josh graduated from high school with decent grades and a strong desire to study art in college.

His younger brother, Mark, had a rougher time of it. Bouncing between our new home in Georgia and his old home in Illinois, he struggled in so many ways, with classes and his relationships. By March of his junior year, Mark totally decided, like many before him, to drop out of high school.

His decision brought heartache to me, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, he was only one of the 1.2 million high school students who dropout. Some states, such as Georgia, have dropout rates that are more than 10 percent.

Because of his previous run-ins with the disciplinarian for skipping classes, I think school officials were glad to see him go. Of course, I tried to talk him out of it, but when a 17-year-old makes up their mind not to go to school; it’s not as easy as when I could man-handle him into a car seat and strap him in to take him someplace he didn’t want to go, like the dentist.

Mark needed a dose of real life, which he got when he moved to Phoenix and found a job working in a grocery store. After almost a year there, making minimum wage, he finally came to his senses. He studied for and passed the General Education Diploma (GED) then enrolled at a local technical school. He has progressed to finishing his second semester at a regional two-year college.

Thankfully, Mark’s story has a happy ending, but that’s not always the case for today’s high school dropout. The Center for Labor Market Studies says that “The costs of dropping out of high school today are substantial and have risen over time, especially for young men, who find it almost impossible to earn an adequate income to take care of themselves and their families.” (Center for Labor Market Studies, 2009, p. 2).

We KNOW it’s bad for our citizens and our economy when students don’t complete high school, so what are our cities and schools doing to stop the flood? According to Kids Count Indicator Brief study, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation there are several strategies that can reduce America’s dropout rates:

1. Adopt a long-term approach that begins to strengthen school readiness.
2. Enhance the holding power of schools, with an intensive focus on ninth grade.
3. Focus on the forces outside of school that contribute to dropping out.
4. Address the needs of those groups at highest risk of dropping out.
5. Build on the skills and understanding of the adults who affect teens’ motivation and ability to stay in school.

I’ve seen several of these strategies work in my boys’ cases. Josh was identified as early as 9th grade as a dropout risk and the school had a plan in place to catch him before it happened. What’s truly sad is the research uncovered by Kids Count. “Some researchers see evidence of a “push-out” syndrome in many schools, where teachers and administrators make little effort to hold onto potential dropouts.

In some cases, accountability systems associated with No Child Left Behind mandates may lead schools to “push out” students who are not performing well in classes and on standardized tests.

I don’t have room in this article to explore the many possible interventions. Each child’s story is different and might include an alcoholic or homeless parent. Each school is different. But, if your child is struggling in school, he or she is far from alone. Connecting with school counselors and key teachers can go a long way toward helping our children move forward in life.

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