Don’t Quit On Me

by Jennifer Jordan   •  

Instead of elaborate interventions to help at-risk students stay on course and in school, a new study suggests a deceptively simple solution might work best of all: weaving a stronger web of caring relationships.

With 5.5 million young adults ages 16 to 24 disconnected from school and work, ensuring that all young Americans graduate prepared for work and postsecondary education is critically important to our economy and our society.

Yet despite myriad programs designed to help struggling students succeed, nearly half a million students drop out of U.S. high schools each year. It’s a loss of talent and potential that our society and our economy cannot afford.

Don’t Quit On Me: What Young People Say About the Power of Relationships, released in late 2015 by America’s Promise Alliance, includes the voices and perspectives of nearly 3,000 young adults. Many of these young people faced adversity growing up including homelessness, hunger, depression and abuse, and had left high school before graduation.

While the challenges they faced were complex, their message was succinct: Don’t give up on me. Encourage me. Reach out.

“A lot of them just don’t have anyone to trust,” said Kirsys Soto, a former foster child and participant of YouthBuild, a nonprofit that helps low-income youth develop work skills and embark on meaningful education and career pathways. “For a lot of students, counseling and family support is even more important” for their long-term success than traditional school-based supports, Soto said.

Soto, now 25, works at YouthBuild USA’s Graduate Leadership Department through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. She joined a recent roundtable discussion about the report hosted by APA’s Center for Promise and Boston University’s School of Education.

Dana Brown, principal at Malden High School, one of the most diverse schools in Massachusetts, said he spends far more time worrying about the social and emotional well-being of his student than his school’s graduation rate or test scores.

That’s why his school provides wrap-around services for homeless students, parenting teens and students struggling with mental and physical health issues. Without supports like these, Brown said, his students can’t succeed.

“The number one priority is to stabilize relationships,” Brown said. “We really need to simplify and focus on that.”

What did the researchers learn? “A lot of young adults said ‘we looked for help and couldn’t find it.’ So we took a deep look at relationships,” said APA President and CEO John S. Gomperts. Rather than focusing on the perceived deficiencies of struggling students, the researchers looked inward and asked themselves some tough questions. “Is it us who are not persisting the way we would with our own child?” Gomperts asked.

They also discovered that an array of obstacles – including unreasonable and inconsistent procedures for grades and transcripts – prevent many struggling students from graduating or from returning to high school to receive their diploma after dropping out.

“A 16 year old can drop out of high school, but you need a parent’s signature to return to school,” said Wilson Santos, Boston Public School’s student support coordinator. “We need to be bringing disconnected youth back to school, not make it harder with all of these obstacles.”

The report revealed four key findings:

  • Thousands of students face enormous hurdles, yet most receive too little help.
  • Relationships matter – a lot.

Students who leave school have the same emotional capacity as those who stay, they just have a different response to situations and face other hurdles — like worrying about putting food on the table.

  • Relationships buffer adversity – to a point.

Students facing the greatest adversity need wrap-around services and supports that go beyond what is often provided by family, school and friends, such as trauma counseling or help finding housing.

  • Students at risk for not graduating need both an “anchor” person they can rely on as well as a wider web of support.

Individuals, educators and communities all have a role to play, said Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise. “Everybody can be somebody to a young person.”

We hope you will read and share this powerful report as we work to ensure more young Americans get the supports and services they need and deserve to pursue their version of the American Dream.


Jennifer Jordan

Jennifer D. Jordan is Opportunity Nation’s Senior Writer. She shares the campaign’s mission and accomplishments and those of its coalition with diverse audiences, seeking to heighten awareness about expanding economic mobility to more Americans. Read Jennifer's bio.

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