Teachers: Not enough resources to help students who are disengaged
More student supports identified as key to tackling dropout problem.
by Clarisse Mesa
Three District high school teachers offered their perspectives on the problem of dropouts in a discussion with the Notebook, August 2.
Together, they painted a picture of schools that, despite the dedicated efforts of staff, simply are not adequately equipped to deal with students who are disengaging from school or not coming to school.
Kathy Brooks is a ninth-grade special edu cation teacher and senior-class sponsor at Fels. Michael Spangenberg has served as roster chair and English teacher at FitzSimons and Rhodes. Geoffrey Winikur, formerly at Gratz, is now a teacher at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice.
These three teachers were invited to participate based on their roles as teacher leaders, their range of teaching experience, and their willingness to discuss out-of-school-youth with the Notebook.
Lack of engagement, lack of support
Brooks noted that students who know they are going to college “will go to World History, even if it's boring.” However, the teacher participants agreed that many students in District schools do not see schoolwork as meaningful or relevant to their lives.
Meanwhile, some students are influenced by incentives outside of school and are enticed by more immediate means to an end, the teachers pointed out. “One (of my students) was making money – some on the corner, some of it legitimate,” said Winikur. “His mother just gave up on trying to get him to stay in school, and he thought he could make it big in that world.”
On the other hand, many students do believe that education is powerful, but do not believe that they can do it themselves, Spangenberg noted. Students may have experienced a lack of success in school and “are not able to do what they need to do.”
Spangenberg discussed the increased expectations and credit requirements of high school. “When you finally start holding them to a level that they haven't been held to in middle school and they don't just get passed along, they're frustrated, and they're at an age when their parents can't really stop them (from dropping out),” he stated.
And in high school, students face both higher expectations and less support. Brooks observed that teachers need to show an interest in students as individuals, but the participants agreed, “You just can't give attention to all of them.” The guidance counselors cannot give every student attention, either.
“It's tough for advisors and guidance counselors to follow up,” said Spangenberg. “Guidance counselors end up like social workers, and they have enough to do. They make home visits, but it's tough because so many students are out (of school) so much.”
In many cases, Winikur observed, “the (students') mental health issues are being neglected altogether.”
And the support that struggling students need is not always available at home, either. Although Brooks spoke of parents' love for their children, she also noted that parents do not always know what to do when their children are acting out in inappropriate ways.
“Most parents are glad to get a phone call from me. I try to call to say good things as well as not so good things,” she stated. “It's not us against them,” she added, noting that building individual relationships between teachers, students, and parents is key to student success.
Slipping through the cracks
Statistically, ninth graders are at the greatest risk for dropping out. The participants said they grappled with perpetually declining enrollments and agreed that they have no way of knowing where the missing students have gone.
“As a classroom teacher, I am not privy to that information,” Brooks said. “If a child is absent from my class for a while, I get a drop slip. If a child is added to the roll, I get an add slip. That's it.”
Spangenberg observed, “It's hard to say why faces stop showing up, but there are always fewer students at the end of the year. I've had 33 in my classes at the beginning of the year and 22 at the end.”
The participants shared stories of students with chronic absences and expressed frustration with a lack of time and resources to address the issue.
Spangenberg discussed a student who missed school for over a month because her mother would not come to reinstate her after a suspension in March. “The mother was frustrated because it was (the student)'s third suspension,” said Spangenberg. Weeks later, someone finally made a home visit and brought the student to school to take the PSSA exam.
It takes a village
Each teacher described successful interventions with students, based on individual relationships with them. All agreed that everyone in the school community – from administrators, to teachers, to support staff, to students, to parents – must be invested to solve the problem of dropouts. They called for resources to meet the needs of the students they serve – including mental health and academic support.
“Most teachers who take their profession seriously will try to do right by the kid,” said Winikur. “If, for example, a student didn't get along with a colleague, we could move the student to someone else's classroom.”
But all agreed that the District's “Comprehensive Student Assistance Process” (CSAP) – which schools initiate for students with attendance, academic, or behavior problems – is not comprehensive. “The teachers don't trust the (CSAP) process any more than the kids do,” stated Winikur. Teachers fill out paperwork and list interventions but there is no accountability for making or following up on a plan, they said.