Making it Personal
In the new movement to keep kids in school, every educator has a role to play.
We are in the midst of a school dropout crisis. According to estimates, about a million students fail to graduate every year. Roughly half of Black and Hispanic students graduate on time with a standard diploma, and less than half of American Indian and Alaska Native students complete high school. Studies show that each class of high school dropouts costs the nation more than $200 billion in lost wages and tax revenues, plus spending for social support programs.
“We are paying the price, folks,” says NEA President Reg Weaver, “socially, economically, and politically, for a generation that is more likely to be incarcerated than be in college.”
NEA Today recently asked educators to tell us how they made the difference in the life of a would-be dropout. Inspiring stories came from teachers of band and auto mechanics, kindergarten and elementary grades, in alternative and mainstream high schools.
The stories that follow only scratch the surface of what is being done—and what can be done. NEA supports making high school graduation a national priority by calling for an investment of $10 billion over the next 10 years to support dropout prevention programs.
Steve Schuld, Roosevelt High School, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
I SEE STUDENTS who have a hard time with core classes, but come alive in my hands-on automotive class. These kids are filled with energy when they can work with their hands. One commented, “I only came to school today because we have lab. Otherwise I would have stayed in bed.”
The kids work hard in my class, and I try to encourage them to work just as hard in their core classes. I just nudge them and say, “If you can understand automotive technology, then you can use that smart brain of yours to work through those other classes for me.”
Sometimes students will get pulled from my classroom because they are failing a core class. This hurts. It seems that something they enjoyed, like learning engine mechanics, has been taken from them. So they come to hate school.
When this happens, I go to bat for the student. I arrange a sit-down with counselors, students, and parents, to devise a plan that leads to the student graduating.
Students involved in sports, band, the arts, and after-school clubs develop feelings of accomplishment in school. The kids in my auto and welding classes are no different. As educators, we need to see where student interests lie, and then cultivate that interest so their enthusiasm will spread to the rest of their academics. Dropouts are silent, so we need to be looking out for them.
Bernard Nabozny, art and English teacher, Tomlinson School, Jackson, Michigan
HELPING STUDENTS who are stumbling on the road to graduation is our “soul purpose” at Tomlinson Education Center, an alternative high school in Jackson, Michigan. Ours are the intractably truant, the probationary, the pregnant, and the discipline problems. The teachers learn these young people’s stories—the missing childhoods, the abuse, the low-income/low-education history—and we all search for ways to reach as many of them as we can. Those students in turn find a trust most of them have never known.
I’ve been here nine years, and have seen teachers go to students’ homes to bring them to school and stay late to help them with missing work—or just to talk. Our very special para-pro makes calls every school day to wake or motivate certain students who need someone to hold them accountable. I’ve given a student my extra pair of glasses when hers were broken in a domestic dispute.
Last year, the whole staff worked into the summer to design a new block schedule, so our students could have the chance to get caught up. We do these things on top of our regular teaching load to catch the ones that have slipped through the cracks, all the while struggling to abide by the misguided No Child Left Behind regulations.
It’s all worth it when I think of the ones who make it. Jenny was asked not to return to her high school when she became pregnant. At first she thought it would be impossible to graduate as a young mom, but she was thrilled to find that our school had daycare and teachers who didn’t judge her. She applied herself, took as many art classes as her credits would allow, and even became my Teaching Assistant for a time. When she graduated, she wrote a note to the school board praising our program, and singled me out for giving her the opportunity to be successful.
Emily Mann, special education, Newtown High School, Elmhurst, New York
Ten years ago I was a special education teacher and advisor in New York City’s Newtown High School, responsible for identifying “long-term absentees.” One of them was Miguel, a motivated 11th-grader who had disappeared after calling to report that a fire had ravaged his mother’s apartment. He remained on the long-term absentee list for almost a year.
Eventually, I located him. He had gone to work full-time to support himself and help his mother. Miguel wanted desperately to return to school and graduate, but he thought he was too old. He had no idea that students can attend public school through age 21. After we spoke, Miguel returned to high school the following week. Nearly two years behind his peers, Miguel received his high school diploma. On the last day of school, he told me that he was graduating because of me and that I’d changed his life forever. I never thought of it that way—I was just doing my job.
Joseph Webb, Suitland High School, Suitland, Maryland
StUDENTS WHO SUCCUMB to the temptation to leave school often see the proverbial light only after it is too late. My experience as an educator includes a quarter-century as an administrator of public schools in the District of Columbia that specialized in multigenerational learning. Although they were called adult education programs, the sole criterion for acceptance was a minimum age of 16, the age at which children were no longer covered by compulsory school attendance laws.
Adolescents enrolled in my school found themselves in classes with students their parents’ or even grandparents’ age. Students were grouped based on their performance on diagnostic placement tests; ages were irrelevant. In order to meet the students where they were, self-paced learning allowed them to move to higher levels each time they demonstrated mastery of a unit. Only rarely were there any behavior problems because everybody was there voluntarily and because the older students refused to allow any disruptions. The program placed the onus for success where it belongs, squarely upon the shoulders of the student.
Some students will make bad decisions, but we shouldn’t view them as irrevocable. Students who are allowed to return to school often are more focused and committed than their peers who never left the fold. There are times when we must take several steps backward in order to get a running start.
Denise Arrigo, Millville Senior High School, Millville, New Jersey
Several years ago, I taught a senior who missed several consecutive days of school. Julio was in good standing and only months away from walking the stage. So, I called him at home. He explained that he was tired of his hour-long bus commute. He wanted to work and buy a car. I talked to his mom. She said Julio was set to be the first in his family to finish high school.
Julio had used up his unexcused absences and was told in a letter that he was being dropped from the roll. I spoke with the assistant principal and arranged a conference. At the meeting, Julio agreed not to miss any more school days. He successfully completed his schoolwork, and his mom and I shared a big hug on the night of his graduation.
Movita Utt, St. Paul School, Cana, Virginia
ONE NIGHT IN 2004 my son came home from a date very upset. The high school senior he had been out with, a good student all through her school career, had just informed him that she had been withdrawn as a result of numerous absences.
I learned that her mother was terribly ill, and each day the young lady wrestled with the decision of leaving her at home alone. When my son shared this story and told me how upset the young girl was not to graduate in the spring, my heart was broken. During my 23-year teaching career, I had taught this girl and five of her six brothers.
The next day I called the attendance officer at home and talked with him for nearly an hour. We convinced him that she should be given another chance. The conditions were as follows: she could not miss so much as one hour of school the remainder of the year, she would have to attend summer session to make up all the days she had missed, and I had to commit to seeing that she would be in school each day.
I knew we needed to make some changes in her home life. I met with the girl’s uncle and aunt and they agreed to let her stay with them and see that she got on the bus each morning. I had a temporary custody agreement drawn up and took it to the young girl’s mother. She wept as I explained that her only daughter was trying to graduate and keep alive her hopes of going to college. The mother, knowing that this was the best thing, reluctantly signed the papers.
Today, still driving that same used car that my husband and I co-signed for her to buy, the young woman is a certified pharmacy technician and is on the waiting list for nursing school at a local community college. Best of all, the girl that was once labeled a dropout became my daughter-in-law last fall.
Wendy Rice, Ferndale High School, Ferndale, Washington
Jenna was 14 years old when she came to the alternative school where I taught. After two short months, she dropped out of school and ran away to live on the streets of Seattle. For some reason, she continued to call and tell me she was OK. I, in turn, informed her parents.
One day, her parents and I met Jenna at a restaurant in a rough part of Seattle. This lovely girl had turned into a urine-smelling junky. Her parents kidnapped her that day and took her to a treatment facility in another state. After a series of halfway houses and other treatments, she returned to high school and graduated. She also went on to finish a bachelor’s degree from an alternative college.
Today, she is clean and sober, married and living in Oregon, where she works in the art community. That was 11 years ago, my first year teaching alternative education. Since then, countless others have sat in my classroom, each seeking more than an education. Most have wanted someone simply to listen to them.
The days of sending a troubled child to talk with their counselor are over. Today, it is the responsibility of every adult in the lives of young people to stop, look, and listen. If we don’t, we will continue to lose our children to poverty, abuse, and as dropouts.
If each teacher, paraeducator, bus driver, food service worker, and secretary listened to one child who appears to be struggling, it could change lives.
Paul Rayius, Band Director, Osceola Middle School, Seminole, Florida
I’ll start with the happy ending: One of my students, Ian, was recognized as the 2005–06 “Turn Around Student of the Year” at Osceola Middle School, where I teach band. The award is given each year to one student who has shown remarkable improvement academically, intellectually, and socially.
Ian was never a problem in my band class, but in sixth and seventh grades, he was having a tough time in his other classes. I went to bat for Ian when they wanted to pull him out of band for extra help in his “academic” classes. He is so dedicated to music that he agreed to switch instruments so he could take Beginning Percussion during the one period it would fit into his schedule.
When it came Ian’s turn to be recognized at the awards breakfast, our assistant principal acknowledged that through those rough couple of years, often the only reason that Ian even came to school was to attend band class. She concluded with some of the good things that he accomplished in his eighth-grade year. This is the kind of feedback no performance assessment can provide. Now, Ian is halfway through his freshman year, in the marching band, and doing quite well in school.
Sheri Green, South View Elementary School, Muncie, Indiana
TWENTY YEARS AGO I made a promise to my first kindergarten class. I said that I would be at their high school graduation, and that they had better be there, too! They were the Class of 2000. Before the graduation ceremony, I sent each former student a congratulatory letter and a poem I composed. Several of the students said it was my promise to see them through to graduation that helped keep them in school.
I make the same promise to each new class. Since then, it’s been 10 kindergarten classes, seven first-grade classes, a third-grade class, and two second-grade classes, including the one I teach now.
Years before they graduate, I see former students at the mall or in a restaurant. They always remind me to attend their commencement. They ask me, “Are you still coming to my graduation?” With a heartfelt smile and a nod, I say: “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” The “promise” has blessed me just as much as them.
In-school tutoring paid off.
Adapting the School Setting
Teacher opened her homeroom to student.
We Provided Alternative Schooling
What more could we have done?
NEA's Position on Dropout Prevention
Make high school graduation a national priority.
Urge Congress to provide $1B in FY 2008 for dropout prevention programs.
Share Your Story
Tell your story of a would-be dropout or dropouts. How did you help them stay in school? Or tell why you decided to stay in school.
NEA’s 12-point Plan to Reduce the Dropout Rate
- Mandate high school graduation or equivalency as compulsory for everyone below the age of 21
- Establish high school graduation centers for students age 19–21
- Make sure students receive individual attention
- Expand students’ graduation options
- Increase career education and workforce readiness programs in schools
- Act early so students do not drop out
- Involve families in students’ learning at school and at home
- Monitor students’ academic progress in school
- Monitor, accurately report, and work to reduce dropout rates
- Involve the entire community in dropout prevention
- Make sure educators have the training and resources they need
- Make high school graduation a federal priority