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"What's in a Name?"

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It's been more than 400 years since Shakespeare pondered that question in Romeo and Juliet, yet it continues to have an unexpected resonance in public education today. If you need proof, just take a look at "Don't Call Them Dropouts," a major new study from America's Promise Alliance and its Center for Promise at Tufts University.

In an effort to determine why young people stop attending school and delay or never graduate, researchers listened deeply to the young people themselves, distributing thousands of surveys and conducting more than 200 first-person interviews in 16 cities across the U.S. All of this listening was designed to answer four distinct questions:

  • What do young people say about why they leave high school before graduating? What circumstances surrounded the decision to leave?
  • What were students' lives like when they left school, and what effects did leaving school have on them and their families?
  • Why do young people say they come back to school?
  • What opportunities do young people have to re-engage after leaving school, and what barriers do they encounter along the way?

On the key issue of why a young person would leave school without a diploma, researchers found that 25 different factors were mentioned over and over again, with abuse (30 percent), homelessness (22 percent) and time in juvenile detention (18 percent) topping the list.

Given all of the stress points in their lives, it comes as no surprise that these young people said they were looking for connection anywhere they could find it, whether that meant the positive influence of a mentor or the negative influence of a gang. With the right kind of support and connection, many one-time dropouts proved remarkably resilient: In this particular survey sample, 64 percent of respondents went back to complete high school at some point, and almost 50 percent had either a full-time or part-time job.

All of this is valuable information on a number of levels, but what strikes me the most is the amount of effort and care that went into gathering the information. This is excellent research, and its sheer scope and quality require us to examine our assumptions about students who leave school and never graduate. With major corporate support from Target, America's Promise invested a lot of time and money doing something that's both simple and radical at the same time: listening to young people who have been marginalized by society and understanding their situation from their point of view.

At Communities In Schools, we know from 30+ years of experience that at-risk youth, unfortunately, are not used to this kind of attention and respect. In school, on the streets, at home -- wherever they go, these young people are used to being invisible. As a result, one of the simplest, most profound things that we do is to treat young people as our own, as human beings worthy of being noticed, heard, remembered, and loved.

"You look tired and sad. What's going on?" "When was the last time you had a good meal?" "How did your math test go? Need any help studying for the next one?" These are the kinds of questions our Site Coordinators ask over and over again in an effort to build caring relationships with at-risk students and meet their needs more effectively. Just as importantly, by the very act of asking and listening, we communicate to marginalized youth that they are real people, worthy of being seen and cared for as they are.

With the current study, America's Promise did this kind of deep listening in a systematic, broad-based way. Their report forces us to restore the humanity and recognize the potential that these "dropouts" still have. As I write this, it looks like just over 5,000 people have watched the accompanying 4-minute video in which half a dozen young people talk about why they left school -- and how they bounced back. Their compelling stories remind us of the extraordinary potential all young people possess, regardless of how challenging their situation. If you want to feel your hope grow, take a moment to watch and listen; I think you'll respect these young people in a whole new way.

Which brings us back to the question I started with: What's in a name? Given their resiliency, their tenacity, and their tendency to "reach up," youth who leave high school shouldn't be called "dropouts," America's Promise believes. This new report doesn't necessarily offer a better term ("interrupted-enrollment students" is pretty unwieldy), but others have suggested names such as opportunity youth, disenfranchised youth, or disconnected youth.

All of these names have their strengths, and I sometimes use the terms interchangeably depending on the circumstances, but at the end of the day, Communities In Schools is still committed to preventing dropouts and ending the dropout crisis. There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, I simply don't perceive "dropout" as a pejorative term, and this passage from the report reminded me exactly why that is:

"Students leave school not because of a particular event or factor, but because circumstances accumulate in ways that push school further and further down their list of priorities. The reasons they cite for dropping out are the breaking point, the end of the story rather than the whole story."

This is a classic case of "the straw that broke the camel's back." At-risk youth face untold hazards in their environments, and one by one these burdens pile up until a student just can't stand the weight any longer. These students aren't walking out the front door of their school in some kind of protest or statement. Instead, the floor is giving way under their feet, and they are falling under the weight of burdens that can no longer be borne. At this point, there is a clear downward trajectory in their lives, and "dropout" is the term that best captures that. The word itself reminds me of the way that society's infrastructure has failed to support these young people properly, failed to hold them up. In this regard, the term "dropout" should make us all uncomfortable, for in no small part, we have failed as a community.

Secondly, I'm all for affirming positive traits such as resilience and personal agency, but I'm wary of any term that glosses over the precarious position these young people are in. When the floor gives way and a student drops out of school, he or she is in a very dangerous place, and there's no guarantee of emerging from the rubble.

Yes, it's possible to persevere, to turn things around and get back up on a solid footing -- but the odds are not good. Study after study has found that young people who drop out of school face a much higher likelihood of being unemployed, unhealthy and incarcerated. We need to offer young people who are in this precarious situation every possible chance to bounce back, but we do them no favors by pretending it will be easy. The best solution -- the safest option -- is to help them stay in school in the first place.

So, what do you think? Can we use the term "dropouts" while still affirming the humanity and the potential of these youth who have not graduated and are not in school? Or do we need to change our language to better reflect our commitment to these young people? Please, take a moment to view the video from America's Promise, read a little more about their study, and then weigh in with your recommendations below.