TOPICS > Education

Why Students Who Underperform, Fall Behind or Fail Classes Drop Out of School

September 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the U.S., one million students leave school early each year. Ray Suarez kicks off American Graduate Week with Victor Rios, Stephanie Krauss and Adam Steltzner, three individuals who know firsthand what it's like to be a high school dropout, but who ultimately turned their lives around and returned to get more education.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: America’s dropout crisis.

Each year, approximately one million students drop out of high school. That’s roughly 7,000 every day. Tonight, the NewsHour kicks off American Graduate week, where we will go inside the nation’s classrooms to examine some of the causes and some of the solutions.

Ray Suarez has more.

RAY SUAREZ: In addition to those who leave school without a diploma, there are millions more who are underperformers, failing classes, and falling behind.

What happens when students drop out?

Are American schools any good at providing a flexible path to graduation for those who have already checked out? Are schools doing enough to grab kids with potential before failure and negative reinforcement leads them to drop out?

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My guests’ lives and work makes them unusually qualified to tackle those questions.

Stephanie Krauss is a former dropout who runs the Shearwater Education Foundation in Saint Louis, which operates a charter high school for high-risk students.

Adam Steltzner is a NASA engineer we profiled earlier this year. He helped design the landing for the Curiosity mission to Mars, but once came close to dropping out of high school himself.

And we also profiled Professor Victor Rios, a former gang member and high school dropout who now studies young men like himself. He teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

And, Professor Rios, if you have failed classes, if you have missed credits, do we set too high a bar in America to graduate? Do schools make it too tough to get back on track?

VICTOR RIOS, University of California, Santa Barbara: I think so, Ray.

I think that what happens is that, sometimes, we give up on kids too soon. Sometimes, we want to teach to the test instead of teaching to transform. And, sometimes, that comes from top-down policy.

So, on the ground level, educators are trying genuinely to help young people out, but sometimes they’re forced to live by the standards of the test versus living by the standards of supporting young people’s development.

And, so, what happened in my story was that I had a teacher, Ms. Flora Russ, that helped me to change my life around by teaching me to transform my life around through emotional support, social support and linking me with mentors along the way.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephanie Krauss, you have designed a program to reach kids like yourself.

STEPHANIE KRAUSS, Shearwater Education Foundation: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you have to keep in mind?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS: So, to the credit question, in the state of Missouri, one of the things that we’re really concerned about is something we call seat time.

So in order to get one unit of credit when 24 units are required to graduate, you have to get a passing grade and then be in class for 7,830 minutes.

So, if you have a story like mine — I left school and was what you would call chronically truant for a while. So I had a couple of jobs and I was goofing around with the wrong group of friends.

I wasn’t acquiring credit. I wasn’t at school. And so my education was disrupted. When I was still high school-aged, if I had returned, I would have been too old with too few credits.

And this is what we’re seeing all over the city of Saint Louis, these young people who are 17 or 18 years old, and they need 24 units of credit. They only have 22 or sometimes they only have three or four.

So the math doesn’t work out. So, what we’re trying to do is come up with what we call a competency-based approach. So, kids get credit when they show us that they know it, flexible paths for them to acquire credit, to show us proficiency. Do they know what you need to know in order to go on to college, so that you can succeed in work and life?

RAY SUAREZ: Adam Steltzner, you didn’t drop out.

But to hear you tell it, you might as well have. You were checked out, even if your body was getting that seat time.

ADAM STELTZNER, NASA Curiosity Mission: Yes, but I actually came close to not — not passing through the same kind of seat time requirement in the state of California when I was there.

So, I agree with both Victor and Stephanie that looking at the student and — as opposed to a set of formulas, is really the way to stem the tide of kids not graduating.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard the professor say it was one particular caring teacher who helped him turn it around. What worked with you?

ADAM STELTZNER: Well, for me, what it was, was seeing a couple of my friends not graduate and the challenge that they had and how they suffered that kicked me in the hind very late as I got close to graduation, and I really knuckled down and was able to make it through.

RAY SUAREZ: What are the impediments to reconnecting kids with school? Do they have to spend some time in the wilderness and realize how hard it is on the outside before they realize, ooh, I have got to get back there?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS: That’s a great question. It depends on who the student is. But we’re seeing a couple of trends with our work on the ground in Saint Louis.

So, often, I use the comparison with alcoholism, with addiction, and this idea that there are, in fact, smart kids who leave school because life happened. They get pushed or pulled out.

And they have got to go through some of that life, and essentially bottom out, in order to have a real invested interest themselves in returning.

So, at Shearwater, we run — our flagship program is a charter high school. And what we find in terms of stickiness, kids who come and stay and do the hard work of reengaging and moving toward graduation, that they made the decision themselves, many of them young parents, many of them coming off the streets from homelessness or in foster care. Often, they have that supportive adult.

But they have the agency and the decision to return. We call that grit. It’s kind of that persistent passion of wanting it for themselves that is born out of a little failure and a little hardship and a lot of survival and resilience.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Rios, your academic work takes a look at high school kids and what keeps them in and keeps them out. A lot of them don’t even know why they’re in school, do they?

VICTOR RIOS: Well, sometimes, purpose is very important.

So, if we don’t have purpose, if we’re not teaching young people what the purpose of school is, then they will think of school and college as this very abstract 10th planet kind of idea.

I know there’s maybe a 10th planet out there, but I have never really learned about it. And it’s such an abstract concept sometimes. So college becomes very abstract for young people oftentimes.

And so it’s a matter of providing concrete opportunities, persistent care, persistent programming that teaches them. And, unfortunately, sometimes, young people that come from poverty don’t have those parents that are examples that have gone to a four-year university, let’s say.

And so, because of that, I think it’s our obligation as a society to provide role models that have gone to four-year universities who can teach a more concrete example of what it means to go to college. So, mentoring is key here.

RAY SUAREZ: Adam Steltzner, I have spoken to a lot of teachers over the last year. And high school teachers say one of the most critical moments is when they sit down with a kid with their transcript and say, you can’t finish this year. You can’t graduate with your friends.

We don’t have much of a safety net for those kids. So, how do we keep them engaged?

ADAM STELTZNER: That’s right.

I think it’s very hard. And I know from my own experience through high school you can feel in a big high school like no one is really seeing you, no one really is caring about you, the student. You’re occupying a spot in a class. You’re either there or you’re not.

And that’s the challenge because when you feel seen by the institution, by the — by a person, at least one, it’s a strong pull. And you start to feel that they’re on your side.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephanie Krauss, we are right now in the midst of a standards revolution. Everybody wants to make sure high school graduates meet the highest standard.

And we’re in the middle of a numbers revolution, where we want to get those graduation rates higher and higher and higher.

Are those two things warring against each other? How do we maintain standards and get the graduation number up?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS: Both are critical.

And I want to take a minute just to highlight the really incredible work that is going on in the city of Saint Louis.

I think that there is a collective effort to come up around this idea of how does a community surround its kids to get the numbers up and to make sure that, within that space of numbers, our graduates truly are ready for education past high school.

And so a part of those two things not warring is common vision and common ground around, what does it mean for our kids to reengage and what does it mean for them to be successful? What do we want for them out of being contributing citizens?

I think that a key piece of that, a driver, is understanding that while dropping out is something that has affected kids in communities for years, that this is a community-wide issue like it’s never been before. With the markets and the jobs being different, it becomes imperative.

Educators have always cared about educating kids to the standards, to the standard of what it will take to be successful.

But marrying it with the graduation rates and lowering our dropout rates means understanding the implications for the job markets.

Kids have to be proficient in more academic areas than ever before, because the job demands look different than they have ever before. And that common understanding changes the landscape. Saint Louis is a great example of a city that gets that.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephanie Krauss, Victor Rios, Adam Steltzner, thank you all.

VICTOR RIOS: Thank you.

STEPHANIE KRAUSS: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Across the U.S., there are programs that are working in this regard, keeping kids in school and changing their lives forever. Find some examples on my blog post online.

And our American Graduate series continues all week. Stay with us.