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Preventing high school dropouts can start in 4th grade

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

NEW YORK — Not everyone earns their diploma.

One out of every four students fails to graduate from high school in four years, according to the 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 could 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, students have multiple risk factors rather than one simple problem. Here are a few of the issues related to teenage dropouts:

  • Adult responsibilities, such as work and child-rearing.

Among girls who have babies at age 17 or younger, 60 percent 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."

  • 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 students who can't succeed academically often become truants because school is "so frustrating to them. They're labeled 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 behavioral 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 youth ages 16-22, said it's not unusual for dropouts to enroll 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 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, with lack of English fluency and inadequate early schooling in other countries among the factors.

But children from affluent, educated families drop out of school, too. Reamer said that in those cases, truant or defiant teens might 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 behavior. 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 teens act out, others sometimes withdraw. They might 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 students who can work independently from home are among the options.

In addition to chairing the National Dropout Prevention Center, Udell is CEO of Penn Foster, an online high school diploma and college degree program. Two-thirds of Penn Foster's 50,000 high school students are over age 20. These online classes are the 21st-century equivalent of correspondence courses: Penn Foster was founded in 1890.

  • 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 8-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.

  • Lack of extracurricular activities.

Stacy Hansen, drama director of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, says students who aren't engaged outside of class risk becoming "disconnected to the high school community."

Hansen's recent production of "The Grapes of Wrath" had 110 actors and 40 students backstage. "People say, 'Why do you put so many kids in? It would be a lot easier with 10.' But part of my job is to give everybody a chance," she said.

A club or activity "creates an immediate family, a place where they belong and they can just be safe, a place where they're known by their first name and they can connect, whether it's arts or athletics or mock trial or dance, or outside of school, a church group or tae kwon do," she said.

  • Finally, experts say, we mustn't give up on students who drop out, no matter how difficult their circumstances.

One of the Life Skills Center graduates this year, Bonita Winston, is a 22-year-old mother of five. Empowered by a high school degree, she's got a career goal: Working in anesthesiology.

"If anybody can give an epidural," she said, "it should be me."

 


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