Keeping Students in the Schoolhouse: How We Can Change the Trajectory of Young People’s Lives
I will never forget the words shared by William Winter, the former governor of Mississippi, during a speech I heard him give after I returned to the state as a community educator. He exclaimed, “The road out of poverty stops by the schoolhouse!” That resonated with me.
My mother was the fifth of fourteen children born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. She left high school without a diploma, married, had three children, divorced, and moved to New York to start again. As a single mother, she “stopped by the schoolhouse” to get a GED and later earned her associate degree. Her pursuits, I am confident, changed the trajectory of our lives. And for me, dropout prevention and college access and completion have always been significant issues in my life, from my observations as a child through my research and practice as an academic professional.
While a high school diploma was arguably not necessary in the agrarian economy in which my mother was reared, that is not the case today. However, that important message is not necessarily clear to all young people today. Reports suggest that more than one million youth are not enrolled in school and do not have a high school diploma, and each year, an additional 390,000 young people drop out of school (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2011). Thus the out-of-school youth population is not trivial, accounting for as much 11 percent of youth ages 16-19 in some states (Reyna, 2011).
Having grappled with these issues for over two decades, I now know that the issues important to me personally are also most important to our nation. To remain globally competitive, the United States is faced with having to double the number of college-degree recipients without compromising quality. And job market projections signal that over 70% of the fastest-growing jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. Furthermore, the fastest-growing populations (Hispanic and African Americans) are those who are currently less well educationally served and drop out of high school in staggeringly high numbers.
In my work with dropout recovery and re-engagement centers, I often ask the question, “Why did you leave high school without finishing?” For my mentee, McClain, who just completed his diploma at age 20 after a series of obstacles and misfortunes, he had to care for his family. McClain, who still resides in his single mother’s rural Florida home with five other children, had to care for his youngest siblings while his mother was ill.
As educators, we are charged with preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs and careers. When I finished high school in 1985 in the Mississippi Delta, I could not have known about internet service providers or a career as a website designer or social media specialist. So thirty years from now, when the “Minority-Majority America” is predicted, there will likely be a host of many more new careers. And we must find ways to ensure that members of our fastest-growing populations remain in school long enough to complete their diplomas and acquire the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs.
For McClain, re-engagement centers, mentoring, and a glimpse of college and life success beyond his rural environment drove him to diploma completion and now college access. Thus, policies and programs that “speak” to keeping students in the school house (in some type of setting) will help to avert the predicted dilemma that America could face if there are millions and millions of jobs for which millions and millions of people are not prepared.
The issues of dropout prevention and college access are huge and overwhelming when you really stop to think about it. For me, McClain—whose mother is African American and father is Hispanic—embodies the complexity of this challenge and the broader work before us as a nation. Right now, I am helping McClain choose a college. Recognizing that his college entrance exam scores are not in the top tier, we’re considering community colleges and open-enrollment four-year private colleges as options. Having witnessed the dropout-to-reengaged-to-diploma-completer-to-college process first hand, I know that McClain’s stopping by the schoolhouse and staying through diploma completion will change the trajectory of his life.