Don’t ignore red flags: preventing high school dropouts

It’s graduation time, but not for everyone. One out of every four students fails to graduate from high school in four years, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.

NEW YORK — It’s graduation time, but not for everyone.

One out of every four students fails to graduate from high school in four years, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.

Risk factors for dropping out include low academic achievement, mental health problems, truancy, poverty and teen pregnancy.

But here’s a shocker from Lynne Strathman, director of Lydia Urban Academy in Rockford, Ill., a small faith-based alternative program for dropouts.

Strathman says the one thing that she consistently finds is that “the last time these students felt successful was the fourth grade.”

That’s right: Fourth grade. Which means parents and teachers may be ignoring years of red flags.

“Dropping out of school is often the result of a long process of disengagement,” agreed Stuart Udell, chairman of the National Dropout Prevention Center, based at Clemson University in South Carolina. And typically, he added, kids have multiple risk factors rather than one simple problem. Here are a few of the issues related to teenage dropouts:

l Adult responsibilities, from work to child-rearing.

Among girls who have babies at age 17 or younger, 60 per cent drop out of high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Udell said boys who become fathers are at higher risk too.

One famous example: Levi Johnston, father of Bristol Palin’s baby, interrupted his studies to become an apprentice electrician in Alaska. But the apprenticeship required a high school degree, and he left the program. Bristol graduated with her class, but Levi has not yet earned his diploma, according to interviews in the July issue of GQ magazine and on Larry King Live.

l Truancy, learning disabilities and mental health problems.

“Truancy is a symptom,” not the cause, of dropping out, according to Frederic Reamer, professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work and author with his wife of Finding Help for Struggling Teens: A Guide for Parents and the Professionals Who Work With Them.

Strathman said kids who can’t succeed academically often become truants because school is “so frustrating to them. They’re labelled that they’re lazy, but they don’t know how to function in school because of a learning disability or a mental health issue.” Low achievement leads to behavioural problems: “They felt like failures, and they made themselves get kicked out.”

John Stack, administrator of the Life Skills Center of Akron, Ohio, an alternative school for kids ages 16-22, said it’s not unusual for dropouts to enrol in his school “at a fourth-grade reading level. We’re trying to get people to understand that if these kids go from a fourth-grade level to a seventh-grade level, that’s progress.”

Only 64 per cent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, with lack of English fluency and inadequate early schooling in other countries among the factors.

But kids from affluent, educated families drop out of school too. Reamer said that in those cases, truant or defiant teens may be academically capable, but often come from “a family where there’s a lot of chaos, where parents may be divorcing, or where there may be alcoholism or mental illness. I don’t suggest we have to tolerate or excuse the behaviour. But it requires quick, constructive intervention and skilled professional help.”

Reamer added that “a teenager who may be at risk of dropping out may also be at risk of slitting her wrists, or overdosing, or getting pregnant, or having an eating disorder.”

While some kids act out, others may withdraw. They may have sexual orientation issues, or simply not fit in. “They are square pegs in a round hole,” Reamer said.

Therapy, special academic programs recommended by independent educational consultants, and even online courses for kids who can work independently from home are among the options.

l Boredom. Nearly half the dropouts in a 2006 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said they left school because it was boring and irrelevant.

Frank Scafidi knows about that: His son was “deemed a ’difficult’ child” in school. Then an assessment showed that the eight-year-old boy was working on a ninth-grade level. Scafidi’s wife home-schooled the child until he enrolled in a Sacramento middle school. Trouble started again in high school, so as a teen, he took the California High School Proficiency Exam. Today the young man is in the Air Force, having scored “the highest possible score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exams,” Scafidi said.

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