One low-cost, low-tech way to lower dropout rates

One key to further improving graduation rates, youth advocates say, is emotional support for teens. It's a social remedy that doesn’t require new legislation – or even a bigger school budget.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kendra Castillo, who dropped out of high school, returned to school in Boston and is now working on her college bachelor’s degree.

Kendra Castillo was 16 when she dropped out of high school for the first time. She was pregnant. When she returned, this time to a different school, she couldn’t keep up. What’s worse was that none of her teachers seemed to care. So, with a waitressing gig and a baby boy to take care of, dropping out again wasn’t a tough decision.

Nobody stopped her.

“I was pretty much, by that point, alone,” Ms. Castillo says. She’d moved to Boston from Honduras four years before. Her mother was upset about her pregnancy, and her father was out of the picture. Without a referee to flag her decision, she says she had no idea how to think about her future – or that it was even necessary to do so.

Every year, more than 485,000 American teenagers leave high school without finishing. Despite significant progress in raising the national graduation rate – in 2014, a historic high of 82 percent – more than 1,200 high schools nationwide still fail to give out diplomas to one-third or more of their students. A disproportionate number of them serve primarily black or Latino communities with low-income households.

But Castillo did go back and finish high school a year later. And how that happened illustrates a low-cost path that many other dropouts might follow.

While race and socioeconomic standing are in correlation with high school success, a student’s decision to drop out is often the confluence of unapparent but amenable factors. Among them, researchers say, is the lack of persistent emotional support.

“There’s been more and more recognition that the social and emotional component of education is no less important than the traditional academic subjects. One facilitates the other,” says Jonathan Zaff, executive director of research under America’s Promise Alliance, a foundation partnership of education advocates nationwide.

Researchers, he explains, have long identified the components leading a student to drop out, including an unstable family life, negative peer influence, and a proximity to violence. But such circumstances of adversity, embedded in a system of inequalities, can and have been conquered. And among reform solutions such as charter schools and intensified testing, there’s another type of safeguard against dropping out.

In the case of Castillo, it was as simple as a question, and then a firm nudge.

Alleviating adversities

“Think of [a high school education] as a highway,” Dr. Zaff tells the Monitor. “For young people who are from academically enriched communities, it’s a matter of cruise control on a smooth path [to graduation].”

Naperville Central High, he explains, which is in a wealthy suburb near Chicago, has a graduation rate 13 points higher than the national average.

But some 30 miles east, a different kind of highway exists, the kind that lingers alongside gang violence, drug overdose, and teen pregnancy – an unkempt path that runs through schools like Harper High in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, where just over half of students graduate on time, if at all.

“No one is following the rules of traffic here, and it’s clogged, so you have to move constantly. And then you get bumped. All of a sudden, you’re thrown over a cliff, completely off the highway,” Zaff says. “But if there were just some bumpers to begin with, you’d get bumped around but at least you’d get back on. It’ll be a little hairy, but you survive.”

The bumpers Zaff references could be a single caring adult.

Zaff’s expertise is in child developmental psychology. For years, he has researched the habits and behavior of children in school, seeking the ideal concoction of circumstances and resources under which students can thrive, academically and beyond. In September, he and his colleagues at America’s Promise Alliance released an extensive study revealing that emotional connections with adults can bolster adolescents’ prospect of graduation, even for those on the most neglected pathways.

Analyzing interviews and survey answers from nearly 3,000 teens and young adults from 13 cities, the study first confirmed that students are more likely to drop out when facing multiple “adverse life experiences” such as homelessness and school suspensions. The bell curve is steep: There is a difference of 22 percentage points in the likelihood of dropping out between someone with five or more of these life hurdles and someone with two to four.

Then, by asking the survey participants to quantify the level of emotional support they receive from teachers, parents, social workers, and other adults, the researchers found that regardless of adversity, greater emotional support from adults positively correlated with uninterrupted enrollment.

“What we’re seeing is that relationships and emotional connections with adults are able to cut through the effects of poverty,” Zaff explains. “They’re not resolving poverty per se, but at least buffering the effects.”

Support could range from a neighbor giving a student a lift to school to a casual check-in from a teacher who asks a student after class, “How is everything at home?” Educators could easily promote an empathy-oriented atmosphere, according to Zaff. Teacher hiring practices, for instance, can be adapted to prioritize not only professional qualifications, but also certain amiable personality traits.

This sort of social remedy doesn’t require new legislation or even a bigger school budget. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost any money. “With reform and any kind of interventions, there’s this idea that it’s always about more funding – not that I’d ever say no to more money towards programming for young people,” Zaff says. “But in reality, there’s already an infrastructure of nonprofits, teachers, counselors, nurses, social workers, and any adult that lives in a community. So from a policy perspective, it’s about how we can leverage this infrastructure.”

The glue in the chair

With determination, a bit of search engine skill, and the existing framework Zaff speaks of, Castillo found her way back to school. She stumbled upon a place called the Re-Engagement Center (REC) in Boston and its team of tenacious mentors, who challenged her with the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

It was something she’d never thought about. Then they told her about the kinds of careers she could pursue with a high school diploma, college even, and the living she could make to support her family. They pulled up her transcript and showed her precisely what credits she needed to graduate. It wasn’t as bad as she thought – a few more courses and then passing the Massachusetts state test, the MCAS.

Just as her mentors had predicted, she made it. And after she graduated from the online credit recovery program at the center, she was pushed even further. In December, Castillo earned an associate degree in psychology, and now she’s working toward her bachelor’s. She already has a full-time job at a nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty.

“For someone to care about you and your potential, someone who doesn’t even know you, this was an important point for me,” she says. “They would say, ‘Wow, Kendra, you’re stuck. You can do much better than what you’re doing right now.’ And I don’t ever want to let them down.”

Across the room at the REC, Manny Allen cracks a grin. He may well be the one she’s quoting. It is his job, after all, to connect and be straight with the young men and women who drop out of Boston’s public high schools.

A charming, boyish man, Mr. Allen is eloquent and earnest. A former high school dropout himself, the father of two worked in IT, sales, and real estate before joining the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), a nonprofit body that links people up with education and job opportunities.

What he does as a “recovery specialist,” Allen says, barely has anything to do with school. “It’s about students finding their purpose, to figure out what school will actually do for them in life. When they succeed, it’s after they realize they’re in charge of their own lives.”

The key to this endeavor, he explains, is building a relationship of trust. And it isn’t easy.

“Emotional support is sometimes a push and sometimes a pull. It’s believing in someone, listening to the problems in their lives, but it’s also being able to stand up to them and say, ‘You’re capable of more than what you’re showing,’ ” Allen says. “If Kendra came up to any one of us at any time and said, ‘It’s too hard. I’m thinking about quitting,’ we would immediately say no and start reminding her about her future.”

Neil Sullivan, the PIC’s executive director, calls this sort of emotional upkeep a “glue in the chair” phenomenon. When people think about education, he says, they don’t think about the component of emotional support. They don’t really notice it until it’s not there. And for disadvantaged students, mentoring relationships with adults are rarely part of their culture and socialization.

“We’re just trying to fill in the gaps,” Mr. Sullivan says. “We’re not the crew that shows up and tells you to reform. It’s hard to work with schools that way, if you just say, ‘I’m here to save the day.’ But if you showed up to say, ‘I’m here to pitch in and make some connections so your students could make opportunities they wouldn’t see otherwise,’ then people would naturally welcome it.”

So far, it’s worked. The PIC and Boston Public Schools have worked hand in hand for the past decade in tackling the city’s dropout rate. With the outreach and counseling they have provided to struggling students in school as well as students who left without finishing, the number of BPS dropouts has shrunk by more than half since 2006 – from 1,936 to 701 in 2014.

But beyond just helping a student to earn a diploma, emotional support could also improve academic performance, Zaff and his colleagues say. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Adolescence in 2012 measured the impact of parental and teacher support on a young person’s own perception of competence, ultimately finding that higher levels of support lead to better test scores.

Origins of care

Although there isn’t a long and broad history of relationship-based programming, Zaff says, the idea itself isn’t a new one. In modern education history, it dates back to at least the late 1970s, when a second-grade teacher in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood created a training and community engagement program for students who didn’t complete high school.

Dorothy Stoneman had been the executive director of the successful East Harlem Block Schools when she created YouthBuild, a yearlong opportunity for young adults without a high school diploma to reclaim their education and contribute to rebuilding their communities in jobs such as housing construction for the homeless.

“I think the reality in public schools is that teachers are alone in classrooms with too many young people. The teachers don’t know how to handle it, schools don’t give them real support, and in turn the students feel like their teachers don’t care about them,” Ms. Stoneman says.

“Any young person we’ve talked to would say, ‘I wasn’t getting what I needed in the schools. It just didn’t make sense to stay, and so I left,’ ” she adds.

In more than 50 years in education, Stoneman observed that caring was at the core, a proposition that later became the guiding mission of YouthBuild.

Since its inception in 1978, YouthBuild has spread to more than 250 chapters around the world. Out of the 9,000 students who enrolled in YouthBuild in 2014, nearly 75 percent went on to obtain their high school credentials or other certificates.

For the PIC, the growth in graduation rates over the past five years extends to not only students on the four-year track, but also those on the five-year trajectory, which reflects the outreach efforts of Allen and his fellow counselors. In 2007, some 65 percent of the BPS graduating class was able to finish in five years or less. Fast-forward to 2012, and that figure rises to 72 percent.

This year, more than 3.3 million US students will receive their high school diplomas. The goal, as backed by President Obama in 2010, is to increase the graduation rate to 90 percent nationwide by 2020, with no high school graduating less than 80 percent of its students.

To achieve this feat while also accounting for the thousands of kids who don’t graduate on a four-year path, Zaff and his fellow advocates predict that relationship-based programming will probably play a big role.

But for the educators and mentors in the field administering the so-called glue in the chair, their work isn’t geared toward test scores or attendance rates – not directly, at least.

Allen remembers one student he worked with, a young man stuck at a certain point and in need of a firm but gentle push:

“I remember, I sat down with him one day and talked about his personality and his skills – the sort of money he could make. After our conversation – he told this years later – he taped what I said on the inside of his closet. He said he used to look at it every day. Here’s a guy who went to six different high schools and ended up getting his PhD from Brandeis. He wants to run his own school.”

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