October 5, 2015

Relationships Are Key to Keeping Kids in School, Report Says

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Stell Simonton

Why do kids quit high school? And what can keep them there?

“Many young people who leave school are being hit from all sides,” said Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise, the research arm of America’s Promise Alliance, a national organization devoted to creating opportunity for young people.

Many have experienced neglect, abuse, illness, violence, hunger and homelessness, he said.

“It tends not to be just one thing,” Zaff said. “It’s really a cluster of things.”

What helps them weather these experiences and stay in school are relationships, according to a new report from the Center for Promise. In fact, seven life experiences stand out as predictors of leaving high school without graduating, according to the report “Don’t Quit on Me.”

They are: becoming a parent, being suspended or expelled (even once), having many friends leave school, not feeling academically prepared for school, having a major mental health issue (such as depression or anxiety), being homeless and moving homes.

The kids who leave school are “hit with the double whammy of low support,” Zaff said. They have “relationship poverty,” according to the report.

They need an anchoring relationship — whether it’s a parent, teacher, family friend or another young person.

Earlier this year, the Center for Promise surveyed 1,200 young people who had left school. Of those who returned, according to the report, the most frequent reason given for re-enrolling was “Someone encouraged me.”

Emotional support is important, but “instrumental support” is critical, too, Zaff said, referring to tangible resources, such as a bus pass or an introduction to a potential employer.

 [Related: 2015 Building a Grad Nation Report – Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic]

Kids are more likely to graduate if they have an anchoring relationship and a web of support, the report found.

However, kids who report five or more adverse experiences in their lives need more intensive support than a web of family, friends and community can provide, Zaff said.

They may need mental health services to help them resolve trauma in their lives or housing services to provide food, clothing and a place to live.

“Don’t Quit on Me” offers a message to adults who are concerned about keeping kids in school: Help create a web of support for kids.

“You can do relatively small things,” Zaff said. Check in with a kid you know. Give someone a ride to school.

The Center for Promise also makes recommendations to schools and the community.

Schools can:

• Make it harder to leave school,

• Make it easier to return to school,

• Bring in the web of support,

• Invest in building relationships,

• End zero-tolerance disciplinary policies,

Engage young people as peer supporters.
Communities can:

• Assess young people’s risks and resources,

• Improve the odds that all young people have an anchor,

• Engage health care professionals,

• Include social support systems,

• See education and youth services as investments in your future.

More related articles: 

Absences Add Up: How School Attendance Influences Student Success

Back to School: Exploring Promising Practices for Re-engaging Young People in Secondary Education

What Kids Can Do (WKCD) – Youth Research for Action Grant Competition