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Commentary: What We Hear When We Listen

Image: An art installation of 857 empty school desks stands at the National Mall in Washington
An art installation of 857 empty school desks stands at the National Mall, near the Washington Monument, in Washington June 20, 2012. Each of the desks represents a U.S. student who drops out every hour of every school day, according to the College Board which set up the installation. A team of local college students, supporting the "Don't Forget Ed" national movement, collected signatures on site for a petition to be sent to U.S. presidential candidates asking them to prioritize education in the presidential campaign. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters / REUTERS

Last month we heard the good news that for the first time the nation’s on-time high school graduation rate is above 80 percent. That’s a big accomplishment, worthy of celebrating. But it also offers us easy math that prompts a tough question: What about the remaining 20 percent?

Who are these young people, 800,000 each year, and what still stands in the way of their success? We decided it would be helpful – provocative, even – to go right to the source and engage them – a lot of them – in deep conversation about what causes them to decide to leave school without graduating.

So, we ventured into 16 urban communities that experience the one-two punch of high poverty rates and low academic achievement. We convened groups of young adults, age 18 to 25, who had left high school without graduating. Some had eventually returned to get their high school diplomas; some had not.

We engaged a brilliant community youth organizer from Boston who has worked with this population for years, and asked him to lead a series of group interviews. Based on what we heard in those conversations, we surveyed 2,000 more non-graduates online, plus an additional young people 1,000 who graduated on time despite experiencing similar levels of poverty.

The results of this study, which we’ve titled Don’t Call Them Dropouts, can be found at

The stories these young people told us were humbling, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. Over and over, they came forward to describe living environments that made concentrating on school virtually impossible. Neglect, abuse, violence, illness and unresponsive schools defined their daily existence.

Worst of all, these young people all too frequently described searching in vain for even one adult who could help them. They looked at home, in school and in their communities. But they couldn’t find the help, support, or guidance they sought. So, eventually, the multiple effects of these toxic environments pushed school further and further to the periphery of their lives, and they decided to leave.

To date, we’ve used the term “dropout” to refer to young people who leave school without graduating. But that term carries a connotation of “loser” and “quitter,” and the research we did suggests that those labels are plain wrong for many young people. Many of the young people told us they didn’t drop out of anything: they tried to do the right thing, stay in school, balance their basic needs and those of their families with the challenges their environments placed on them. Ultimately, they felt that support systems quit on them, not the other way around.

“Please don’t call us dropouts,” they asked us, over and over. So we’ve dropped the word “dropout” from our lexicon.

It’s a very small act that nonetheless shows we hear what they’re telling us.

It should surprise no one that poverty has a negative impact on young people’s ability to get to school, stay there, concentrate on classwork, and complete an education. But perhaps equally surprising – and hopeful – is the positive effect that even one influence can have on struggling youth.

Those who got back on track – or stayed on track against the odds – described caring, capable adults who held onto them when they needed guidance, and organizations that were there for them when no one else was.

They talked about mentors, peer supports, coaches, counselors, recovery programs, as just some of the supports that pulled them through.

In the end, it isn’t rocket science and neither is there a single solution.

Rather, each community’s solution can start with one simple act: Listen. Find these young people and listen to what is happening to them – in their lives, their neighborhoods and their schools.

We know they need some form of caring relationship in their lives to keep them on the path to a thriving adulthood. They need integrated, wrap-around supports to help counteract the many effects of poverty. Schools should offer fewer exits and more re-entry points so that when students leave school they’re not sealed out forever.

Further, these students bring significant strengths and the yearning for adults who care about them, can help them, and won’t leave their lives no matter what.

They need our constant, engaged help, in a thousand small ways that we can only know by listening to them, patiently, persistently and deeply.