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OPINION: Advice about how to raise the high school graduation rate — from students themselves

By Dale Erquiaga | July 23, 2018

"Ask how we’re doing and mean it. Ask the follow-up question, even when we brush you off the first time. And be willing to listen to the answers.”

If you want to know what young people need to succeed, it turns out you should just ask them. They’ll tell you. And they’ll make it clear that neither miracles nor miracle workers are required to help more students graduate from high school and be prepared for the future.

Over the past dozen years, the national high school graduation rate has increased from 71 percent to 84.1 percent. The young people living in that 13 percentange-point difference are the kids who can and should graduate, but in past years too often didn’t. Many like them still don’t.

As leaders of national organizations focused on helping all students stay in school and graduate, we met recently with young people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. We wanted to hear from recent high school graduates about what works, what doesn’t, and how we might do more.

What we heard simultaneously lifted our spirits and broke our hearts. It didn’t take long for young people to get to stories of struggle and stress, anxiety and anger, trauma and depression. Jokes about who went to prom quickly gave way to a wave of deeply personal testimony about loneliness, isolation and grief, as well as a desire to be seen, heard and believed.

Across these two very different communities and with students who graduated from 10 different high schools, we heard five consistent themes that should inform and guide parents and caregivers, school leaders, teachers, youth development workers, employers and policymakers at all levels.

1. We know what you adults think of us.

So often it appears that young people aren’t paying attention, yet they are astute at figuring out what adults think of them and have a sixth sense about the ways they are stereotyped and underestimated. One student told us, “Schools just focus on the stars. If you aren’t a star, they aren’t really rooting for you.” Another student said she got a clear message from her school: “Once I said I wasn’t going to college, no one was interested in my future.”

Adults must send a clear message of high expectations. This doesn’t just mean academic rigor. It also means enabling students to dream big about their futures.

2. You seem as stressed out as we are.

The young people we met could see plainly that the adults in their lives weren’t always doing the right thing. One student said, “The teachers were as mad as the students some days. I didn’t want to hear about their problems because I have my own.” Another asked, “How can adults help when they act like children themselves?”

It’s not easy to help students dealing with challenging circumstances, and we must do much more and much better in training and supporting educators and other school personnel in how to engage constructively with young people who face big challenges in their lives.

3. We are dealing with much more than you know.

“There is so much on my heart,” a young woman told us. The young people we visited had already experienced more than a lifetime of traumatic events. One student told us that he had “no mother, no father, I was on my own living in a car.” Another student told of “watching my brother die right in front of me.” One young woman recounted, “That boy got stabbed right outside of school. Everyone was there, and he just bled out. I didn’t know what to think.” Another offered this: “Things we so bad at home, I just [checked] out at school.”

We need to get serious about mental health supports for young people, now. Among the graduates we spoke with, there was universal agreement about the mental health issues in their lives — anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts — cutting across race and gender. Those were the stories these young people — predominantly youth of color — were willing tell in a group situation with two middle-aged white men they had never met before. We know there is much more that they weren’t willing or able to share.

4. Care and support are what we need.

Even with all of the challenges these recent graduates faced, the things that helped them get to graduation were comparatively simple and well within reach. Time and again, they said that caring and connectivity were what they yearned for most. Thanks to a caring adult in their lives, they said, they made it through high school.

By way of examples, they named people including Boys & Girls Club employees, teachers, coaches, site coordinators at Communities In Schools, friends, family and faith leaders. Credentials weren’t important; being present was. As one student said, “It doesn’t take a degree to be a decent person.”

5. We want to write our own stories.

These recent graduates were clear that they needed support, but that they owned their success. “I am proud of myself,” many said. “I can breathe again, I have a whole new start,” added one. Others showed a bit of defiance: “They didn’t believe in me, but I showed them.”

Such determination and resilience illustrate the kinds of assets these young adults can be in their families and communities, in our economy and nation. So, adults must find ways to provide support beyond high school graduation to allow each young person to find his or her path from high school to adult success, whether that path leads to college, work, the military or national service.

In just a few hours with these young people, we could see that they have great strength, but that they will need more support to discover and pursue their passions — and to succeed beyond high school. Their experiences and comments tell us what we need to do if we want more young people to graduate and stay on a path to adult success.

In the end, what young people are asking for isn’t actually very complicated: Do we believe in them? Will we listen to them and take their challenges and feelings seriously? And will we support them on their journey? The answers shouldn’t be difficult — if we listen.

This story about high school graduation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

John Gomperts is president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest network of youth-serving organizations, communities and individuals committed to improving the lives of children and youth. 

Dale Erquiaga is president and CEO of Communities In Schools, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to empowering at-risk students to stay in school and on a path to a brighter future.

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