Teachers work to catch risk factors and help their students stay in school
Third graders at Turner Elementary School in Southeast D.C. clap and dance their way into their first class every day chanting lyrics such as: "I'm able to do ... whatever I put my mind to."
They're quick to tell you about what they want to do when they grow up. There's a budding teacher, a doctor, an NFL player among them. One even has his/her sights on multiple professions:
"I want to be a soldier and computer expert and exterminator," says Paris Brown.
But chances are, many of these children will not graduate high school. New graduation numbers to be released this month are expected to show that just more than half of public school students in the District actually graduate high school in four years.
Students don't drop out of school for any one reason. It's usually a complicated mix, including individual traits, home life as well as school and neighborhood characteristics. But many researchers believe children exhibit clear warning signs early on that can help identify those at risk of dropping out.
Young students face daily struggles
Students at Turner often have home lives that are filled with challenges, which can sometimes drown out the positive messages the school tries to instill, says Turner Elementary School Principal Robert Gregory.
"Parents that are unemployed, section 8 housing, children that are homeless," he says. "At 6 o 'clock when our aftercare program ends, they're crying. They don't want to leave to go home."
Less than have of students at Turner read and do math at grade level. When they graduate elementary school they'll go on to Johnson Middle School and Ballou High School, where approximately 20 percent of students can read and do math at grade level.
The third-graders at Turner are at the age when many researchers believe you can predict whether a child will graduate high school. The main predictors are often shorthanded using the "ABCs" - attendance, behavior, and course performance.
"Those are alarm bells in the system that for years and years and years have gone ignored," says John Bridgeland, who heads the public policy firm Civic Enterprises and has done a significant amount of research on dropouts.
Students' attendance can be a teacher's biggest challenge. Because if children aren't in school, they don't learn and eventually fall so far behind, they get discouraged and drop out. Twenty percent of students attending public schools in D.C. had more than 15 days of unexcused absences last year; at the ninth grade level, that jumps to 40 percent.
Many children don't come to school because they have to deal with a "constellation of stressors," often beginning at home, according to Amoretta Morris, who is in charge of student attendance for D.C. Public Schools. The problem often snowballs from there.
"Very rarely do you have a student who goes from perfect attendance to dropping out of school," she says. "There's this process of disengagement."
When poor attendance can't be reversed
One student who gradually becamed disengaged was Rashida Harris, a petite 19-year-old who has perfected a 'tough girl' look to hide years of struggles. Her mother died when she was three.
"She died in '96 with full blown AIDS," Harris says. "She had 10 kids." By high school, Rashida was missing at least 40 days of school a year.
"I was never in class to sit there and learn the work," she says. "I only went to school just to be around friends."
According to the District's truancy policy, staff members call a student's home after the first unexcused absence and get progressively more involved. After 10 days, D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency gets involved. Eventually, the courts steps in. But often the system doesn't work as it should. Rashida was living with her aunt and five other children, and says her aunt didn't care where she was.
"She didn't receive the phone calls because we never had a house phone," Harris says. Although by law, school or District officials are supposed to come to the student's home, Harris says that never happened in her case.
Problems with attendance can lead to problems with behavior, which another early warning sign of dropping out. As Rashida spent less and less time in school, she became more and more involved with street life: drugs, robberies and gangs. She eventually dropped out of school for three years before re-enrolling this year.
Behavior learned outside of school
In some neighborhoods, students are exposed to violence early on, says Morris, which doesn't help their behavior in many cases.
"We listened to phone calls from 911 with kids calling in to report the shooting of this child," Morris says. "You hear this little voice and I mean you don't know how old they are, maybe 10. You know 'Hi, he's bleeding right now.'"
When students witness violence outside, they may become emotional, unable to concentrate or become aggressive. Harris exhibited all these behavioral warning signs.
"I would try and argue for any little thing, like 'give me a pencil,'" Harris says. "If they told me 'no', I would just go off."
The outbursts and other behavioral problems makes it difficult for teachers, and students who get in trouble often wind up in the principal's office. Each trip to the principal means an average of 45 minutes out of class, and if a student gets suspended, it's even longer. This sets up a cycle where students fall even further behind, leading right into the third warning sign of dropping out: doing poorly in course work.
Convincing students to care about class
Shira Fishman is checking her ninth graders' homework at McKinley High School in Northeast D.C. She was the 2011 DCPS Teacher of the Year, having left her job as an engineer to teach high school math. Ninth grade is the year when the most students drop out, and math is the hardest subject that challenges them.
"I can't tell you the number of times that on the first day of school kids tell me 'I'm terrible at math,'" Fishman says.
Math concepts build on each other, so it's easy for students to fall behind Fishman points out. In addition, students often fail to see the practical use of high school subjects. When researcher John Bridgeland interviewed almost 500 dropouts from across the country, they said coursework was too abstract.
"They didn't see a connection between relevance in the real world and what they were learning in school," Bridgeland says.
Fishman tries hard to connect variables and equations to things her students would talk about anyway, such as dating and sports.
"'I went to the Redskins game and I bought three orders of fries and six sodas and I spent this much money. My cousin went and bought two orders of fries and three sodas and spent this much money. How much was each?" she says, providing an example. "All of a sudden it's talking about something they care about. Of course, they'll start talking trash to me 'that's why you shouldn't go to the Redskins game!' But you make them see 'oh, I might use this.'"
Daring students to look to the future
Of course, the real world examples don't always work -- like when they're working on some theorems, for example.
"They say 'Ms. Fishman, really? Am I ever going to use this theorem in real life?'" she says. "Sometimes the answer is no. But the truth is, you're always learning how to problem-solve, sorting out the information, and you're always going to use that skill."
Accepting this explanation is more challenging for students such as Rashida Harris, who are trying to survive every day and don't even see a future.
"My mindset back then ... I never believed I was going to see 18 or 21," Harris says.
As Gregory, the Turner Elementary principal, looks at the bouncing braids and toothy grins of his young students, he knows many of them could drop out. But he's also convinced that as an educator, he has the power to change that trajectory, and so do they. He's living proof.
"If we were to look at some of the indicators that researchers look at, growing up in poverty, not a lot of parental support, not a lot of stressing the importance of education, statistically I would have fit into the 'dropout of school' category," Gregory says.
Gregory stayed in school only because of his teachers' encouragement, he says. Now he's passing on that message.
"Dream big," he says. "Anything and everything is possible."
This story was produced with help from Ginger Moored and assistance of Natalie Yuravlivker. It is part of WAMU 88.5's American Graduate series. "American Graduate - Let's Make It Happen" is a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
[Music: "Warning Sign" by Coldplay from A Rush of Blood to the Head]