The good news is that while support can come from professional counselors and mentors, it can and should also come from teachers, coaches, parents, and friends.
Step By Step
While the nation’s high school graduation rate has climbed to more than 81 percent, more than 485,000 students still leave high school every year, according to the report. As the number of jobs that require not only a high school diploma, but a college degree, continues to climb, these students are left further behind.
Schools and the systems that surround them still struggle to keep kids enrolled. “There’s a market failure there,” Gomperts said, adding that it’s not just the school’s responsibility to act, but that of the community as a whole.
The report suggests that kids respond positively to adults who show up consistently. That part is key because many have grown up in unstable environments where their trust has continuously been violated. They need adults who empathize without judgment.
Craig McClay, who traveled the country speaking to young adults for the report, said the constant for young people who stayed in school was a relationship with an individual they felt cared and that could connect them to more resources.
“The idea was this person was constantly saying ‘I see you’” to a student, he said.
That individual anchor can be enough for some kids. Others need more support, from partners like Communities in Schools, the largest dropout prevention organization in the country.
The group, backed by private philanthropies as well as government dollars, puts “human routers” into schools to connect students with resources, Daniel Cardinali, president of the organization, told Next America.
He, along with Gomperts and Zaff, say the timing is right for such a report because policymakers are beginning to acknowledge the real power of a “soft” sounding idea like building support systems around vulnerable kids.
“We’re living in a moment where the conversation is recalibrating in a way that is really quite helpful,” Cardinali said. “We’ve always known that at the heart of what we’re doing are quality relationships.”
The conversation, he continued, has typically been analytical and centered around pedagogy. But the idea that intentionally managing relationships materially improves graduation rates is pretty new. The report, Zaff said, is a step toward showing policymakers that, while a focus on ending poverty is laudable, there are inexpensive, scalable steps to take action in the meantime.
“We’re saying there is a lever for change, there is a way to cut through the chaos that is life,” he said.
At the policy level, as lawmakers debate reauthorization of the federal education law and what Washington’s role in educating young people should be, that could mean channeling funding into professional development for teachers or more funding to create support networks for children in foster care, he said. As Cardinali added, it’s about linking schools and students to existing resources from which they are currently “fundamentally disconnected.”
If that connection occurs and trickles down to individual students, the nation’s high school graduation rate just might rise.