Summary: The arc of the dropout spans numerous openings to intervention; middle and high schools may learn from what elementary school does better.
The passage of a kid from engaged student to eventual dropout is not of one moment, or two, but of many. In each of those moments is an opportunity to intervene in the slippage, because the endgame is not preordained. But the tale of our schools is that intervention comes too sporadically and the human bond that would pull the kid back into the problem solving orbit weakens slowly until the kid’s experience becomes a destructive centrifugal force and he is gone.
As a high school counselor I would see some of these kids arrive as ninth graders, already three quarters of the way flushed out the door on a wash of nonattendance, course failure, and behavioral sanctions, the net of their experience in middle school. They had become ninth graders only because retention in eighth grade clearly doesn’t work; the safety net of middle school marginally kept them in the game. Many would be gone by their second year in our halls.
Others were siphoned off earlier by failure and dropped out of middle school, and so never appeared in dropout statistics, which is the official measure that only activates when the kids arrive in high school. Dropout rates, we should fear, are higher than those reported.
Moments of academic and social dislocation are the stuff of early adolescence and prepubescence.
The seventh or eighth grade algebra material marches on; accumulated misunderstandings leave the kid stranded at his desk with no hint of what the teacher is talking about, and with no hint to the teacher from the silent kid of his distress. Poor test results and absent homework alert the teacher, and she may respond, but here is the dilemma – he is one of many kids and his needs by the time he surfaces are too great for her and related staff on hand to remediate adequately.
The maw of middle school social life is a game of have and have nots. Not only does bullying occur on a regular basis, it is a time of awkwardness and social anxiety, and some kids thrive poorly in the atmosphere. Even if not extreme the alienation that occurs may nonetheless pave the way out the door. By high school the norms of the group have created niches, and some kids are different, alien to the pack. Without earlier intervention, by high school the fade has gone too far, and those individuals slip away.
Low income kids (disproportionately students of color) arrive in first grade often without the preschool groundwork typical of more well to do kids, and so are those most likely to flounder in math, or be overwhelmed by the social context of school.
The conundrum to some extent lies in the transition from elementary to high school. In middle school or junior high, the one class/one teacher mold of elementary school converts to six classes/six different teachers. The small community of elementary school, where all pertinent adults know you and track you closely not unlike a parent, gives way to the relative anonymity of the middle school where the elementary focus on growth gives way to the inculcation of subject matter and the first specialized preparation for the real world.
Here our marginal kids, those about to become lost in math, or the socially bewildered, have no one looking regularly into their lives as their elementary teachers once did, so their disaffection with school quietly grows, becomes malignant, and though they may make it to high school, by then the chasm is too much to overcome with the resources available, and the bond is slipped.
Among the most heart rending of tales of school dropouts is that many once loved school, and have fond memories – mostly of elementary school. A recently published book, “Why We Drop Out” (Feldman, Smith, Waxman), reviewed in the Seattle Times’ excellent Education Lab, turned the usual dropout research on its head and asked “ex-students” about the last time they felt connected to learning.
Whether citing science experiments, reading, or art, Puget Sound area kids interviewed by the authors felt positively about school once upon a time, yet their experiences began to fall apart with the coming of the dreaded middle and junior high school. Math was often the culprit in the form of algebra. Also, the positive memories linked to the single teacher with whom the day was shared were replaced by constantly cycling faces, to no one of whom they bonded.
On another level, the special attention programs of elementary school fade out. Better off families can afford tutoring; low income kids depend more on the school culture to provide supplementary services.
Most damning is that we know who the at-risk kids are but allow them to slide away anyway. Or perhaps as accurately, we do not sustain the sense of community and connectivity that seems to have been pivotal in elementary school for the dropouts Feldman et al interviewed.
What if at any grade auxiliary academic staff, already well integrated into the fabric of the school and already with relationship to many students, were able to pull the kid lost in algebra aside and bring her back up to speed at the first sign of struggle?
What if a cadre of counselor types, chosen not for their degrees but for their ability to relate to transitioning adolescents, were on hand to fulfill the parenting function of the elementary teacher and support the odd duck before his behavior or grades or attendance morph beyond rescue?
What if an incident of misbehavior truly became an opportunity for appropriate staff to intervene, problem-solve, and bring the student back into the fold?
The restorative justice movement attempts to do just that, but done right is time and staff consuming. The follow through, the relationship building with the focused student, the monitoring for improvement, are extensions of restorative justice that are too little discussed. Perversely, suspension saves scarce time.
Is there purpose in revisiting the old eight grade elementary school? Would the students we now worry about in the middle school transition somehow weather those storms better in a more organically supportive structure in which there are few teachers encountered, few transitions and therefore staff that know an individual student better and can intervene at the moment he veers off track?
The efforts by the Gates people and others to convert large comprehensive high schools into effectively smaller “houses” arose from related insights. Make the community smaller, where “everyone knows your name,” in the poignantly apt phrase from the television program Cheers.
Know the kid, see the issues, and intervene promptly are the holy trinity of student retrieval. The cadre of current soldiers, our public school teachers and staff, need more help but often seem the only ones who own it.