Opinion: Opening our eyes to a hidden epidemic in schools
What gets counted counts!
by Shelly Yanoff
Imagine an illness that affected more than one out of four children. Imagine this illness caused severe damage to the patient. Imagine this illness cost the community millions of dollars every year.
What would we call it?
If we knew about it, we would call it an epidemic.
What would we do about it?
We would try to count every case and every new case. We would report on it to the community, invest in figuring out how to prevent it if possible and how to treat it, if not. We would identify any symptoms that seemed to lead to our children having their hopes crushed and their life chances threatened. We would support scientific investigation to find ways to stop the spread of the illness. We would marshal our resources – invest and call on everyone to get involved.
If we discovered a treatment but didn't have enough medication, we would somehow get the medication. Once we understood the damage that this sickness was causing our children and society, we would declare an emergency and work on it together – because we understood that an illness that affects so many children was going to affect all of us, individually and collectively, sooner or later.
Millions of children in the United States leave school every year without graduating.
The Education Testing Service estimated that one-third of all high school students fail to graduate.
We are not sure of the exact number – because we don't really count them; we don't agree on their definition, we don't track them from year to year. We let them disappear without note.
But we know that almost half the country's African American students, 40 percent of Latino students and 11 percent of White students attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm – in which fewer than half the students graduate.
We don't even agree on whether to call them dropouts or just non-school attenders.
What we do know is that their chances of success in life are seriously compromised.
We do know that their chances of becoming homeless or going to prison are high. We do know that there are increasingly fewer jobs for them.
Getting your high school diploma 40 years ago was important but not critical. Then, 70 percent of jobs were unskilled work. Now that number at most is 30 percent.
At the same time, if present trends continue, according to Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, about one out of five ninth-graders – 33,000 young people in the state – will not graduate in four years.
In Philadelphia it is estimated that two out of five youth leave school without graduating. Some leave in ninth grade, some in 10th, and some in 11th or 12th.
If we look closely at sixth graders, we can see who most of them will be. Dropping out rarely has a sudden onset; it is a lingering condition.
Those people who have looked at the situation do identify some symptoms:
- They see kids who fail reading or math or are truant in sixth grade;
- They see kids whose lives are not stable, who change schools a lot, who have behavioral health issues, who attend big schools with big classes and with not enough counselors to help;
- They see kids who are coming out of foster care and who have not been encouraged to stay in school;
- They see kids who are pregnant or who are parents who can't access the services they need;
- They see kids who return from delinquency institutions and who have trouble reconnecting to school;
- They see kids who always had trouble reading and doing regular school work and didn't get help;
- They see kids that too many of us have not seen.
They also see states that don't provide enough support for kids with the most needs. They see schools with policies that discourage kids from staying in or returning to them. They see programs that serve only one-fourth of the families that need them. They see the failures of fragmented systems that don't respond to children's needs.
They see kids in schools where they don't feel safe, cared about, or connected – and so they see kids who leave because it doesn't seem to make sense to them to stay.
If we open our eyes, we will begin to see them – we will begin to count them. We will begin to address their needs.
Only once they cease being invisible can we begin to conquer this epidemic.