Impacts of High School Dropouts

In Wolf Point, Montana, there are a large number of students dropping out of school. The local high school was once labeled a “dropout factory,” but based on new percentages, Wolf Point High School (WPHS) has improved. Data of the 2014-2015 school year collected by Montana Office of Public Instruction credits WPHS with a 65.6% graduation rate. It took nearly a decade for this 6% increase and it’s still too close for comfort (Montana Office of Public Instruction, 2015).

A poll asking dropouts why they left school resulted in numerous answers. First, only 21% of parents were involved in their child’s education (Bridgeland, et al., 2006). When guardians don’t invest in their children, there will be repercussions. Children thrive on attention and encouragement. Lack of motivation was another reason, which 69% of the respondents reported (Bridgeland, et al., 2006). Not having anyone involved in their academics may cause students to lose any desire to learn. Depression, low self-esteem, lack of interest, and stress are also factors. A familiar case in our community is that many parents did not graduate high school, so how can they motivate their children?

Having to get a job, caring for family, and becoming a parent are intertwined. A combined 80% reported at least one of these as the reason they dropped out (Bridgeland, et al., 2006). In poverty stricken areas like Wolf Point, it is not unusual for students to be pressured into dropping out to get a job to help their family. Another 35% said they were “failing in school” (Bridgeland, et al., 2006). Students have this problem because of poor attendance. A study conducted by Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, shows that 10% of kindergartners’ miss at least a month of school. Chang also concludes, “These early attendance gaps can turn into achievement gaps, which contribute to our graduation gaps” (Bock, J., 2015).

Sometimes schools “push out” students due to academic or behavioral demerits (Bradley, et al., 2011). Unfortunately, minority students are often pushed out of school due to circumstances they have little control over (Siegel, et al., 2011). The home lives of numerous American Indians are not taken into account when issues arise. Instead, counterproductive actions such as multiple suspensions result in students leaving.

In the end, dropping out leads to a lower standard of living. While this is a national problem, the devastating effects are seen in greater proportions in our area. According to The Alliance for Excellent Education, if 2013 had a 90% graduation rate, Montana would have seen an increase in jobs, auto/home sales, state/local tax revenue, and annual spending (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2013). In our struggling community, the benefits of increasing graduation would be visible immediately.

Financial disparities aren’t the only effects of dropping out, as evidenced by the experience of a former WPHS student. This student—who will remain unnamed to protect her anonymity—was a sophomore when she left school to work. This decision is affecting her more now than at the time. She states, “Now I am seriously thinking about going back to school and it’s just that kind of mentality like, okay if I didn’t finish high school, why would I finish college?” (Personal interview, April 28, 2016). This could be a deterrent to dropouts who struggle with continuing their education. Perhaps school can be used to gain experience in discipline, motivation, and responsibility.

In terms of solutions, schools can increase graduation rates from the inside. One way is by being a source of encouragement to students. WPHS graduate Presley Anketell credits two teachers with helping her stay in school. These teachers saw her worth and made her feel cared for when she was on the verge of dropping out. She said, “I think as teachers it’s important to let their students know that if they’re having any troubles they shouldn’t be afraid to come to them…letting kids know they’re not alone and help is available” (Phone interview, May 1, 2016).

A teacher’s availability to their students may seem like a basic request, but teachers can’t always understand the situations that plague their students. Letting down communication barriers could result in a more harmonious school. Showing interest in their students, finding commonalities, or listening to their problems closes the communication gap between teacher and student.

Schools and families also need a strong relationship. Parents should be involved in their children’s academics but it’s the school’s responsibility to ensure parents know what is happening. Too often students slip through the cracks, but this can be fixed if the school and families work together to create effective communication.

Wolf Point High School principal Kim Hanks says the school implemented alternative programs for students who need extra help to graduate. The Opportunity Learning Center is a more personal classroom setting. Nearly $10,000 was spent on a program for students to take computerized classes. Montana Digital Academy, a free program throughout Montana, is also an online option. And Summer Credit Recovery is a chance for students to receive credits over the summer (Personal interview, April 25, 2016).

Programs to improve college or work readiness are essential. Erin Loendorf, the GEAR- UP Liaison, says it’s instrumental in retaining students, keeping students engaged, and ensuring graduates are informed and ready for college. GEAR-UP’s main goals are: increase academic performance and preparation for college, increase the rate of high school graduation and enrollment in college, and increase students’ and families’ knowledge of college options, preparation, and financing (Personal interview, April 25, 2016).

Fortunately, success can come from the students themselves. Research suggests that American Indians have strong resiliency (Thornton, et al., 2010). The same situation that can cause a student to dropout can also lead him or her to finish and go beyond. Taking students with disadvantageous backgrounds and fostering their resiliency through attention and encouragement can ensure graduation. The groundwork is done, but our community can work together to build children into prosperous adults.

Overall, completing high school is more than receiving a diploma. Educational and occupational opportunities escalate after graduation and continue upward depending on post high school decisions. Increasing graduation rates is beneficial to individuals as well as communities. When we take into account our population-based causes for dropping out, before working on solutions, we can prevent the harmful effects.

Sierra Hanks and Carly Tattoo are students at Fort Peck Community College.

References

Alliance for Excellent Education. (2013, October 15). The Economic Benefits of Increasing the High School Graduation Rate for Public School Students in Montana. Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from http://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/the-economic-benefits-of-increasing-the-high-school-graduation-rate-for-public-school-students-in-montana/

Bradley, C.L., & Renzulli, L.A. (2011). The Complexity of Non-Completion: Being Pushed or Pulled to Drop Out of High School. Social Forces 90(2) 521-545.

Bock, J. (2015, August 31). School Attendance Gap Starts Early, Report Says. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/school-attendance-gap-starts-early-report-says/article_03217b55-b527-59f7-b0d8-f9ae09667731.html

Bridgeland, J.M., Dilulio Jr., J.J., & Morison, K.B. (2006, March). The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Gates Foundation. Retrieved from  https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/TheSilentEpidemic3-06Final.pdf

Montana Office of Public Instruction. (2015). Graduation and Dropout Report. Retrieved from http://www.opi.mt.gov/pdf/Measurement/2015Graduation_Dropout.pdf

Siegel, L.J., & Welsh, B.C. (2011). Juvenile Delinquency: The Core. 4th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Thornton, B., & Sanchez, J.A. (2010). Promoting Resiliency among Native American Students to Prevent Dropouts. Education 131(2), 455-464.

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