On Tuesday night, PBS’s Frontline aired a two-hour episode called “Dropout Nation” focusing on one Houston high school’s efforts to curb the “dropout crisis”. I first heard about this program a few weeks ago and it immediately piqued my interest for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it speaks directly to my population, my school, and what has become a sort of research focus of mine - out of school youth. I was also interested because of the title. Since I began working with an alternative population, I’ve had a concern with the term “dropout” and the “dropout crisis” facing American schools. I don’t feel like the term speaks to the magnitude of what many young people are dealing with. In fact, I feel as though it belittles this already fragile population, making it even less likely that they'll ever return to school. Also, a “crisis” is typically an isolated event (like a natural disaster or the stock market crash), students have been leaving school for decades. It is not a “crisis” but a consistent failure on a variety of fronts.
First, some quick thoughts on the program. All and all, I think it is certainly worth a watch. It offers a very real look into the lives of impoverished, troubled and “at-risk” high school students. The staff featured in the show were very candid and knowledgeable and did not seem hung up on any one reform agenda or rhetoric (as they so often are in education “documentaries”). The Frontline crew also went out of their way to include a variety of students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and external advocates in the commentary. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the program was real. By which I mean, they didn’t try to manufacture a“Hollywood ending” and they didn’t pretend that the school had magically solved the problem. The end is hopeful, but accepts reality.
What is a “dropout”?
Though it was only in a short segment, I was pleased that the program raised this question. I find this term to be problematic, as mentioned earlier, because it is a profound oversimplification. To label every out of school adolescent or every person without a high school diploma a “dropout” is akin to labeling every out of work person a “quitter”. Yes they are not currently employed [or in school] but the circumstances for their lack of employment [or education] are varied. When we label students “dropouts”, there is a strong message of blame and failure. YOU dropped out. YOU quit. YOU failed. After working with so-called “dropouts” for the last four years, I have come to find that this is not the reality in many cases. Much like the term "achievement gap", "dropout" represents a blame-placing deficit mindset.
There is a powerful scene in “Dropout Nation” where a teacher sits down with the chronically absent Sparkle to discuss her academic situation. We learn that Sparkle, along with her baby, moved to Houston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after arriving in Houston, her Sparkle's mother died. Sparkle had no stable housing, so she was relying on friends for a place to sleep. A few weeks earlier, DHS took her child and she is now attempting to appeal to regain custody. In light of all of this, Sparkle has been coming to school once or twice a week.
The teacher begins the conference, “Sparkle, is school a priority?”
Sparkle responds, “No.”
Somewhat shocked by her honesty, the teacher says, “Well, you need to make it your top priority if you want to be successful.”
Sparkle says, “It’s not. I care about school and I know it’s important, but right now I need to think about my child, finding a job, finding a place to sleep each night, making sure I have something to eat AND not giving up on all of my future dreams”.
Left with little else to say, the teacher finally says, "Well Sparkle, school needs to be your top priority."
I feel like this conversation encapsulates so many of the issues that make urban public education so difficult, but also so essential. There is no doubt that Sparkle should not be in this situation and there is plenty of blame to go around for why she finds herself in it, however, placing blame (especially on her) does little to address the central issue: this is an adolescent who needs support.
In many ways, this is my concern with the “No Excuses” model of education that is taking hold in a variety of district and charter schools. It seems naïve, unrealistic, and even cruel to tell a student like Sparkle that school should be priority #1. (To be clear, I am by no means calling this individual teacher naive, unrealistic, and cruel, there's no doubt that she was trying to act in her student's best interest... she just didn't necessarily have a grip on the whole situation). Of course she needs to come to school, but how can a student focus on anything else when they don’t know where they’re going to sleep? Taking these realities into account does not amount to “making excuses” (though it seems like Sparkle has a pretty good case for not making academics her #1 priority right now), but rather serving the “whole child”.
[Interestingly, the school highlighted in the program refers to itself as a “no excuses” program, but much of what I saw ran counter to my understanding of the model. I found them to be exceedingly flexible, compassionate, understanding, and willing to meet students on their own terms. They are profoundly aware of their students’ circumstances and seem to take that into account]
Like it or not, schools serve a much larger purpose in society than merely distributing diplomas. When we label students “dropouts”, we push them out of this essential place of growth and stability. Some students are going to leave school before they graduating, it's happened for decades and it will continue to. Some will do it because they’re bored or lazy. Others will be enticed by the streets or get caught up in the justice system. Still others will just bounce around due to unstable home lives or personal situations. Regardless of the circumstances of their departure, they should never feel as though the door slammed behind them.
More thoughts on Frontline’s “Dropout Nation” and on supporting out-of-school youth to come.