As three young men who once dropped out share their stories, Nasir Mack hears what could lie in store for his friends – or himself.
One former student left school after butting heads with the deans. Another needed academic help but didn’t get it. A third just didn’t show up.
Despite individual obstacles, all three graduated from Congreso’s GED program in North Philadelphia – but not before spending months out of school. Their stories bear the hallmarks of teenage life: confusion, frustration, big decisions, painful realizations – and in their cases, learning, success and growth. They came to the Philadelphia Youth Network to talk about their journeys and help the Notebook explore the kinds of experiences that lie behind students’ familiar complaints.
Mack sat beside them, taking in every word. His friends back home aren’t living these stories – not yet.
“I know kids two years older than me that don’t even go to school,” said Mack, 14, a bright-eyed, sharply dressed high school freshman.
“Even one of my best friends. His parents let him stay home. He can say, ‘Oh, Mom, I’m not going to school today,’ and his mom will let him.”
But sometimes, staying home turns into dropping out.
Almost a third of District students don’t graduate. The reasons are myriad. In a 2011 survey by Youth United for Change, students were equally likely to cite problems at home as problems at school, but the recent rounds of budget cuts have exacerbated many longstanding student complaints about school environments.
At a student-led School Reform Commission meeting on the subject this fall, young people consistently cited familiar concerns: classes are too big; troublemakers are too distracting; extracurricular activities are underfunded or nonexistent; discipline is too harsh; and staff instability makes progress and relationships hard to sustain.
Mack’s friend’s only explanation for not going to school is, “I don’t feel like it.” So while Mack can’t say exactly what’s behind his friend’s feeling, the stories of Alvin Gonzalez, Baraa Abdul, and Evan Harmon may offer some clues.
He wanted to draw
Alvin Gonzalez may have dropped out, but he doesn’t consider himself a typical dropout by any means.
“Around my neighborhood, they’re dropping out to do drugs, or deal drugs,” said Gonzalez, 19, from North Philadelphia.
That’s not Gonzalez’s thing. Wiry and passionate, he’s an artist and that’s all he wants to be. “I was the one that does his work and then just draws,” he said. “Almost everyone in school loved my artwork.”
But first at Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School and then ASPIRA Olney High School, he found himself at odds with administrators. He left Community because “just drawing” wasn’t enough. And he left Olney after being told he’d have to repeat a grade.
It wasn’t that Gonzalez had no support. At Olney, he had good relationships with some teachers and deans. He was taken on trips to visit art programs and campuses.
“They had a mascot, the [college] trips, the teachers being cool with the students – it was a nice experience,” Gonzalez said.
But the academics, he said, were not as strong – and there was no wiggle room when he struggled. So he dropped out, finding Congreso’s GED program only after getting “tired” of life without a formal education.
He has no regrets – but said he would have stayed if Olney had handled him more like a person and less like a number.
“If I don’t like the way I’m being treated, I’m a person to say something,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to stay shut and just say, ‘Oh, they’re doing their job.’”
He wishes he had listened
The love for fun is written on Baraa Abdul’s face. His smile comes easily and lights up the room.
But when it came time to sign up for high school, fun was all he wanted, so he didn’t enroll at all.
Plenty of his friends in North Philadelphia felt the same way. Goofing off, chasing girls, finding odd jobs to make money – that was the plan.
“It wasn’t so much doing drugs as just wasting time,” he said.
Abdul, 18, grew up being home-schooled. As his freshman year approached, his mother expected him to be searching for a high school. She had no idea what he was actually doing, and “I made sure she didn’t,” Abdul said.
When September rolled around, his mother said, “You’re going to go to school, right?”
Abdul replied, “Nah, I thought about it, but I’m just going to work.”
His family wouldn’t let him become completely untethered. They helped keep him engaged with sports and activities. The turning point came about two years ago when he won a championship in a Southwest Philadelphia basketball league.
It was the first formal recognition of non-academic achievement Abdul had ever received.
“Winning an actual trophy, something I wanted to do, not something I had to do, you get that feeling to make you push harder for something bigger and better,” Abdul said shyly. “Ever since, I’ve been taking basketball seriously.”
Adults encouraged him, telling him he could earn a scholarship to college. That helped bring him to the GED program, where he has thrived.
But looking back, he says he wishes he’d started listening earlier.
“I feel like I missed out on the whole high school thing,” he said.
“As you get older, you’re like, ‘Man, that was stupid; I should have just went.’”
‘I just wasn’t excelling’
Like Abdul, Evan Harmon doesn’t blame anyone for his situation.
In fact, he said, his school offered almost everything a kid could want: good academics, bands, plays, even a counselor to meet with whenever he wanted.
“I loved the school environment,” Harmon said. “It’s like the high schools in the movies.”
The problem, he said, was that when he started drifting away, nobody pulled him back.
Harmon, 19, grew up in Glenside, Pa., and landed at Cheltenham High School, just across the Philadelphia city line. With 1,200 students, its sheer size made it easy to get lost.
“I just wasn’t excelling there. … It wasn’t enough attention, to be honest,” said Harmon.
“Sometimes you need someone to pull [you in]. A person to talk to, to sit down [with] and evaluate how everything is going.”
A series of academic problems was his undoing, particularly with math and English. What worked for him in junior high didn’t work in high school.
“Ninth grade was where things really started going downhill,” he said. School counselors didn’t aggressively seek him out. Eventually, rather than go to summer school (in part because of the cost), he dropped out before his junior year.
Harmon, a soft-spoken young man, is quick to shoulder the blame.
“I was having too much fun. … It was time to get serious.”
But he also hints at deeper conflicts. He liked attention, for example, but didn’t like standing out.
“I thought about many different opportunities,” like school plays and politics, he said, “but every time it came into my head [I said], ‘Oh, you can’t do this, people are going to look at you.’ There were always cons.”
He eventually found his way to Congreso, where he’s found some of what he missed at Cheltenham – not just help with schoolwork and college applications, but the personal attention.
“It’s like that girl who roots her boyfriend on in football,” Harmon said.
“That push, that drive, that motivation has been very helpful.”
A freshman’s point of view
As Nasir Mack sat and listened, he found that he could relate. He’s a big fan of his charter school, String Theory High School for the Arts & Sciences. He feels he gets the attention he needs from supportive teachers who care about him.
But even he can be tempted to throw in the towel.
“Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t feel like going, I want to stay home today,’” Mack said. “Homework, getting up every day, dealing with people you don’t necessarily want to deal with – it’s hard.”
Still, Mack knows he’s better off than some – like the friend who stays home from school simply because he doesn’t feel like going.
Mack’s friend now attends a neighborhood high school. Mack said that he knows from experience what it can be like – overwhelmed teachers, disrespectful students, “fights, chaos every day – nobody wants to be in that environment.”
And Mack fears that his friend is falling into a vicious cycle: goofing off, doing just well enough to pass, but falling further behind with every year. It’s a recipe for dropping out. “It’s really hard for him to stay on track when he’s so far behind,” Mack said. “If you’re coming to school playing around, you’re not going to learn what you need.”
So what’s the solution?
Mack and the other young men said that schools must build the kinds of relationships that bond students to each other and to caring adults. Like the students who took part in the SRC’s “student engagement” meeting, they said schools need to offer the right combination of stability, flexibility, discipline, compassion, high academic standards, and good, clean fun.
Harmon said schools should be small – “maybe 200 students” – and intimate, with counselors meeting weekly with students. Gonzalez thinks schools should learn from students as well as teach them – “there’s things that students know that teachers don’t know.” Abdul said schools should strive to create community, with “activities, trips, things for everybody, like a type of family.”
And Mack made an obvious point – to keep students engaged, school has to be engaging.
“Sometimes, students need a break,” Mack said.
“Nobody wants to come to school every day and just do work, do work, do work. When it gets boring, it’s not fun.”