By BPT NOV 30, 2016 | 9:15 AM
When you consider the “official” high school dropout rate in the U.S., it might not seem so
bad at first; 6.5 percent of young people 16-24 years old have dropped out, according to the
National Center for Education Statistics. However, you don’t have to look much closer to
realize how very bad that number actually is. Or, to recognize that finding a solution is
critical for the future of not only students who’ve left school, but of the country as well.
That seemingly “low” dropout rate equates to more than 1.2 million students who leave
high school without finishing every year, according to DoSomething.org. To put it another
way, that’s 7,000 dropouts a day — one student every 26 seconds. And that “low” rate
establishes the United States as 22nd out of 27 developed countries in terms of graduation
“In the most prosperous country in the world, we should be striving for a zero dropout
rate,” says Larry Powell, retired superintendent of Fresno County Office of Education in
California. “The key to ensuring every student graduates is to change the tactics the system
is using to keep kids in school or get them back if they’ve dropped out. We need to address
the issues that impel kids to leave school in the first place.”
What’s driving the dropout rate?
Elizabeth Jaimes found out she was pregnant in her freshman year of high school. She
didn’t want to leave school in her sophomore year, but felt overwhelmed being a 15-year-
old mother with a full-time class schedule. Elizabeth’s situation is emblematic of a common
issue that compels young people to leave school: unplanned pregnancy.
According to a report published in SAGE by researchers from Texas A&M University and
the Michigan Department of Education, pregnancy is one of the top family-related reasons
for dropping out. Other family-related reasons include having to support their family or
take care of a family member. School-related reasons for dropping out include missing too
many school days, failing grades and not being able to keep up with the schoolwork.
Those reasons are very different from the ones students cited decades ago, when
researchers first began tracking the factors that contributed to the dropout rate. For
example, in 1955, the leading causes of dropping out were marriage, a desire to work and
dislike of school, according to the report, “Understanding Why Students Drop Out of High
School, According to Their Own Reports.”
Researchers differentiate dropout causes as “pull” and “push” factors. When students feel
they can’t manage something within the school environment, they’re “pushed” out of
school. When factors from the student’s personal life — such as childbirth or family needs
— cause challenges, the student is “pulled out” of school.
“Successfully affecting the dropout rate requires a system that address both pull and push
factors,” Powell says.
In order for Elizabeth to be able to return to school, she required help in addressing basic
needs for herself and her infant daughter. Luckily, she lived near a Learn4Life center, one of
70 resource centers the nonprofit organization operates in California. The program helped
Elizabeth learn on her own schedule, at her own pace, so she could manage being a mother
and a student. She graduated in 2015 and is now pursuing a degree in nursing.
Learn4Life’s approach focuses on serving the most credit-deficient population by
supporting the whole student with non-academic services like housing assistance, food,
child care and more. Learn4Life operates under California’s Alternative Schools
Accountability Model program (ASAM) along with over 1,000 other district, county and
juvenile programs designed to offer credit recovery to the most disadvantaged students in
Academically, the program centers on one-on-one instruction in a rigorous curriculum.
Students work at their own pace, which allows them the flexibility to accommodate both
life and educational needs. They advance in the program only when they’ve demonstrated
their thorough understanding of subject matter. Intense instruction in life and professional
skills, such as communication and interviewing, and hard skills like proficiency in
commonly used software applications, aim to prepare students for personal and
professional life after graduation.
To date, Learn4Life averages an 88 percent success rate, with approximately 33 percent of
its students returning to their school district, and 55 percent graduating or remaining
enrolled at Learn4Life in pursuit of a high school diploma.
“Learn4Life is breaking ground and making a difference with this program, but it doesn’t
have to be unique,” Powell says. “This type of program could be replicated across the
country to help ensure every child can get a high school diploma.” To learn more or to find
a Learn4Life center in California, visit learnfourlife.org.