On the outside, looking in
September opening of school ... for some
by Justin DiBerardinis and Steve Honeyman
In September, the doors of Philadelphia's high schools open, welcoming thousands of new students who are feeling the mix of excitement and anxiety that has accompanied every first day of school since the beginning of first days.
But there are thousands of other school-aged youth who are not returning to school. These students are diverse, and their stories and reasons for leaving are varied (related links: a determined teen mom, and a decision to finish school).
Many say they are bored. Many leave school because of family problems or demands. Many stop attending after fights, discipline issues, or clashes at school.
And many say going to school is simply not safe.
In studies and reports about dropouts, personal safety is not always highlighted as a major reason students leave school. But based on 50 interviews conducted for this special edition of the Notebook with local young people who have left school, safety emerges as a primary reason students stop attending.
“It was unsafe. Absolutely unsafe,” said Justin, 18, who used to attend South Philadelphia High School. “Kids would get in with knives, sometimes even a gun. One kid got his jaw broken. His actual jawbone popped through his skin. I felt like I was in physical danger.”
“I was scared every day,” said 16-year-old Termel about his experience at Olney High School. “Would I get jumped, shot or stabbed? Would this be the day they get me?”
“It got so reckless,” commented David, 17, who used to attend King High School, “to the point where if you wasn't part of a gang, you was going to get beat up and if you was part of a gang, you was going to get beat up.” He added, “And the way they fight – they fight with guns and stuff, and I wasn't going to get shot.”
The safety issues were not confined to boys.
For instance, Rebecca, 17, said she was beaten so badly in a fight with another girl at Frankford High School that she “couldn't see anything for two weeks.” She added, “After that, I didn't want to go in because of the fact that she was going to be there, and I didn't want to start no more fights.”
Another common thread in many students' stories about why they left school is their view that the school was unresponsive to their individual situations or unable to provide the support they needed.
Taquira, who attended Washington High, said how she ended up out of school “was stupid because they suspended me first and then when I went to go back to school – to be reinstated – they said that I was off the roll already and that I could no longer go to school there. And I don't know why.”
At Northeast High School, 18-year-old Jason said, “They'd call me queer, fag.” He added, “Teachers would tell me to stop rubbing it in everyone's face – that I was a disturbance. I was just being myself. I'm gay, and at school they treated me like that was a crime.”
For many youth, the big issue is financial or caretaking responsibilities for other family members – often younger brothers and sisters, and even parents.
“I’m a teen mother and it’s hard. I don’t want to leave but I need to be with my daughter. I had her, so I have to take care of her,” Khadijah, 16, said about having stopped attending Edison High School. She also recently suffered the death of a brother, and her father was critically ill. She does plan to return to school, though.
Many young people also felt that school was irrelevant and would not help them to get a good job.
Carlisha, 16, said that she started having problems at Washington “when they teach you the same things every damn year.” She said she was covering the same math in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade.
Many spoke about a feeling that teachers and others at the school just did not care.
“I waited for years for teachers to help me learn and speak to me with respect. It just rarely happened. I had some good teachers but nobody dealt with me based on what I needed,” said Pedro, who left Kensington High School.
Few of these young people who are not attending school as the doors open in 2005 said they received any communication from the School District asking them why they had left or what would have helped them to stay. Some received a prerecorded message or a letter.
Some of the young people interviewed admitted that they should have taken school more seriously or said that they didn’t keep up with the work. Most say they still would like to go back to school, and some are doing so this fall.
Nearly all still have hope for their future.
“I’d like to go to college.”
“I want to be an electrician.”
“I want to make something of myself.”
“I want to get my diploma.”
“I’d like to be a fireman.”