Lost in the Numbers: Uncovering the Stories Behind School Dropout
Ed Trust Paper Explores School Disengagement — From a Student’s Perspective
WASHINGTON (November 6, 2014) — Nationwide, roughly 500,000 students drop out of high school each year. These students are disproportionately students of color, low-income — and male. Though graduation rates among such students are rising — often as a result of significant efforts from both educators and community groups — many students of color and low-income students continue to achieve far below their potential and gradually disengage from school. The Education Trust’s latest paper, “Butterflies in the Hallway,” digs underneath the numbers to describe in searing detail the often-gradual process of school disengagement.
“Butterflies” details the true story of Cornelius, based entirely on interviews with him and notes from his school file. While this is the story of one student, his journey bears similarity to other tales — echoing from the national statistics and experiences of young people across the country. The piece provides a helpful lens for educators to reflect on ways to change their interactions with young people and improve systems to keep them invested in school.
“The perspectives of students who struggle and young people who have dropped out offer critical insights to educators working to re-engage and support students to graduation,” said series author Brooke Haycock, senior playwright-researcher at Ed Trust and a former dropout herself. She has spent the past 15 years listening to struggling high school students. “Cornelius’ story — and the stories of students I talk with all the time in schools across the country — suggest the dropout numbers are not nearly as inevitable as we believe, and schools’ roles in creating them, not so insignificant.”
“Butterflies in the Hallway” offers educators — and activists outside of schools — an opportunity to pause and reimagine schools as places of hope and systemic support for students, particularly those who feel that all might be lost.
“There was a point in high school when I started to think I wasn’t smart enough. That I was so far behind there was really no point in even trying. Looking back there are a lot of things I wish I had done differently — I wish I had stayed focused more; I wish I had stayed in class more,” said Cornelius. “But I also really wish there had been someone at my school who didn’t give up on me. Who would have made me feel like there was hope.”
The Echoes From the Gap series showcases student stories anchored in observations, interviews, and lessons gleaned from students and educators in high-poverty high schools, both those serving students well — and those struggling to do so. The first paper, “The Writing on the Hall,” released in January 2014, examined the frequent disconnect between the inspirational inscriptions stenciled on high school hallways and the other messages educators send students through what they say — and what they do. The second paper, “View From the Lighthouse,” released in May 2014, highlighted the sharpened perspectives of students who transferred from low- to high-performing schools on what makes the difference in student success.