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Report Gives Glimpse Into Why High School Students Don't Finish

While there was celebration in late April over the country's high school graduation rate cracking 80 percent, concern lingers over those who drop out.

A new report released May 20 from the America's Promise Alliance based on research conducted at its Center for Promise at Tufts University in Boston examines why young people to leave high school, based on interviews and surveys of 18- to 25-year olds in 16 cities. About 2,000 of those surveyed had left school, while 1,000 had graduated without interruption.

Researchers found there is often not one single cause, but a "cluster of factors" that lead students away from school. Rather than merely boredom or lack of motivation, young people who drop out are likely growing up in "toxic environments" with unstable families, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe schools. Some students are caregivers for parents, siblings, or their own children. Others are homeless or the victims of abuse.

Students yearn for supportive connections, but without strong relationships with family members, teachers or peers, many give up. Young people who live in such harsh conditions often develop resilience, but to successfully re-enter school, they need more support and guidance from caring adults, the report suggests.

(For more, see Array of Factors Drive Students From School.)

The report concludes that students who leave school before graduating are stronger than popular opinion and current research describes. Channeled the right way, these traits can help them re-engage in school. Early attention to problems could help struggling students before their circumstances become too overwhelming. Too often, the report says, schools make it easy to drop out, but difficult to return. Changes to policies for both leaving and re-entering school might help change the dynamic, the report notes.

The authors suggest that everyone in a young person's life (teacher, school administrator, bus driver, clergy, parent, business leaders) can do something to help. But in addition to influential adults, young people need connections with people and places to help them solve problems that get in the way of them succeeding in school.

The report offers five recommendations:

1. Listen to young people. Take time to understand their struggles and circumstances when figuring out how to respond.

2. Surround the highest-need young people with extra supports. Early-warning systems can pinpoint problems based on attendance, grades, or behavior.

3. Encourage leaders from faith-based organizations, schools, and the broader community to help students stay in school.

4. Use proven and promising, evidence-based approaches to drop-out prevention, such as ones that look at the holistic needs of students. (The report contains a list of examples, such as Youth Opportunity Baltimore and Youth Build Providence.)

4. Give young people a central role in designing programs and coming up with solutions to staying in school.

Established in 1997, America's Promise Alliance includes 400 organizations representing the businesses, nonprofits, communities and policymakers focused on advancing education for young people.

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