I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with a group of 9th grade boys from a Washington, D.C., charter school who were finishing up a research project on why students leave school and what can be done to address the issue. Though they had come to tap my brain on whether there were any research studies to back up their observations and any promising strategies for addressing the issues they flagged, I decided to flip the tables. This wasn’t the first discussion like this that I have had and I was intrigued to hear what they had learned and, more importantly, what they had observed as they watched friends, family and classmates make the hard decision to drop out.
As we continued our frank conversation, one thing that struck a chord with this group was something that comes up in every discussion I have with young people about dropping out: relationships. Young people leave school because they are having trouble at home and no one knows, because they are being bullied at school (by a peer or a teacher) and they don’t know who to turn to for help, because they feel invisible and no one cares, because they had to leave for a while and no one noticed. This particular conversation made me think back to 2008 where I talked with another group of students from Des Moines, Iowa, about the dropout crisis, most of which were dropouts themselves. Relationships was one of the eight “R” requirements for the education system to keep youth engaged. The other seven requirements included: respect, relevance, reality, rules, resources, roles and rigor. You can read about that original discussion and the list in this column for Youth Today.