(BPT) - When you consider the “official” high school dropout rate in the U.S., it might not seem so bad at first; 6.5 percent of young people 16-24 years old have dropped out, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, you don’t have to look much closer to realize how very bad that number actually is. Or, to recognize that finding a solution is critical for the future of not only students who’ve left school, but of the country as well.
That seemingly “low” dropout rate equates to more than 1.2 million students who leave high school without finishing every year, according to DoSomething.org. To put it another way, that’s 7,000 dropouts a day — one student every 26 seconds. And that “low” rate establishes the United States as 22nd out of 27 developed countries in terms of graduation rates.
“In the most prosperous country in the world, we should be striving for a zero dropout rate,” says Larry Powell, retired superintendent of Fresno County Office of Education in California. “The key to ensuring every student graduates is to change the tactics the system is using to keep kids in school or get them back if they’ve dropped out. We need to address the issues that impel kids to leave school in the first place.”
What’s driving the dropout rate?
Elizabeth Jaimes found out she was pregnant in her freshman year of high school. She didn’t want to leave school in her sophomore year, but felt overwhelmed being a 15-year-old mother with a full-time class schedule. Elizabeth’s situation is emblematic of a common issue that compels young people to leave school: unplanned pregnancy.
According to a report published in SAGE by researchers from Texas A&M University and the Michigan Department of Education, pregnancy is one of the top family-related reasons for dropping out. Other family-related reasons include having to support their family or take care of a family member. School-related reasons for dropping out include missing too many school days, failing grades and not being able to keep up with the schoolwork.
Those reasons are very different from the ones students cited decades ago, when researchers first began tracking the factors that contributed to the dropout rate. For example, in 1955, the leading causes of dropping out were marriage, a desire to work and dislike of school, according to the report, “Understanding Why Students Drop Out of High School, According to Their Own Reports.”
Researchers differentiate dropout causes as “pull” and “push” factors. When students feel they can’t manage something within the school environment, they’re “pushed” out of school. When factors from the student’s personal life — such as childbirth or family needs — cause challenges, the student is “pulled out” of school.
“Successfully affecting the dropout rate requires a system that address both pull and push factors,” Powell says.
In order for Elizabeth to be able to return to school, she required help in addressing basic needs for herself and her infant daughter. Luckily, she lived near a Learn4Life center, one of 70 resource centers the nonprofit organization operates in California. The program helped Elizabeth learn on her own schedule, at her own pace, so she could manage being a mother and a student. She graduated in 2015 and is now pursuing a degree in nursing.
Learn4Life’s approach focuses on serving the most credit-deficient population by supporting the whole student with non-academic services like housing assistance, food, child care and more. Learn4Life operates under California's Alternative Schools Accountability Model program (ASAM) along with over 1,000 other district, county and juvenile programs designed to offer credit recovery to the most disadvantaged students in the state.
Academically, the program centers on one-on-one instruction in a rigorous curriculum. Students work at their own pace, which allows them the flexibility to accommodate both life and educational needs. They advance in the program only when they’ve demonstrated their thorough understanding of subject matter. Intense instruction in life and professional skills, such as communication and interviewing, and hard skills like proficiency in commonly used software applications, aim to prepare students for personal and professional life after graduation.
To date, Learn4Life averages an 88 percent success rate, with approximately 33 percent of its students returning to their school district, and 55 percent graduating or remaining enrolled at Learn4Life in pursuit of a high school diploma.
“Learn4Life is breaking ground and making a difference with this program, but it doesn’t have to be unique,” Powell says. “This type of program could be replicated across the country to help ensure every child can get a high school diploma.” To learn more or to find a Learn4Life center in California, visit learnfourlife.org.