High School Dropouts, In Their Own Words

We've been hearing a lot about high school dropouts because of a flurry of studies and reports that offer dire warnings about the drag dropouts can be on the economy and the nation's future. But if you want to understand why a million kids drop out of school every year, all you have to do is ask them — which is what NPR's Claudio Sanchez did as part of a recent reporting assignment to Central Falls Rhode Island.

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We've seen a flurry of reports recently about high school dropouts - all include dire warnings about the drag the dropouts put on the economy and the nation's future.

To understand why a million kids drop out of school every year, NPR's Claudio Sanchez visited Central Falls, Rhode Island, and asked a few of them.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The thing you can't help notice about Blake Wilcox(ph), Kristina Rivera(ph) and David Walker(ph) is how young they look, almost child-like. Although make no mistake, they're street-hardened kids, and they say much more mature than they were a year and a half ago when they stopped going to school.

Mr. BLAKE WILCOX: I honestly think it's my fault because I didn't put the time and effort to stay in school. I can't really blame anybody for what I did.

SANCHEZ: That's Blake - tall, reserved, soft-spoken and nearly 19 years old now.

Mr. WILCOX: I don't think any teacher really let me down because, I don't know, I didn't really want to go to school anymore. I worked.

SANCHEZ: Blake says money was more important to him than school. For Kristina, the problem was school. It was boring, not a single class interested her, so she just stopped going.

Ms. KRISTINA RIVERA: When I did go to school, I just put my head down and slacked off, and most teachers didn't even bother saying anything.

SANCHEZ: If you don't put in the effort, most teachers feel you're just wasting their time, says Kristina. You become invisible to them. She repeated both ninth and 10th grades. Problems at home also got in the way. A family member's hospitalization put enormous stress on Kristina and her family. She says kids who have issues at home think they're all alone in the world. This makes them angry and moody at school.

Ms. RIVERA: You know, they're going through things that they're not going to take nothing from nobody. They're just going to, you know, lash out. I could get into arguments with people to the point, like one time I actually got into a fight in school and I've gotten suspended.

SANCHEZ: Suspended might as well have been David Walker's middle name.

Mr. DAVID WALKER: I was the tough guy trying to show off in front of the teachers and try to yell at them, throwing stuff in class and stuff, walk out of class and go meet my friends inside the hallway because we'd just act up in the hallway and stuff.

SANCHEZ: Like many struggling students on the brink of dropping out, David was a troublemaker, disruptive, disrespectful. He says teachers and counselors didn't think he'd ever amount to anything.

Kristina and Blake say they, too, felt teachers had given up on them. So what changed? I asked them. What made them want to enroll in a dropout prevention and recovery program and earn a high school diploma? Not a GED but a real diploma.

Mr. WALKER: I know what I have to do to get, like, through life.

SANCHEZ: I grew up, says David. I'm not a troublemaker anymore.

Mr. WILCOX: I have responsibilities now. I can't act up in class and still think that I'm going to make it to college and stuff like that. In order for me to, like, get to college, you have to sit there and actually do your work and all that other stuff.

SANCHEZ: For Blake, it was the realization that without a high school diploma, he'd never make enough money to afford an apartment, a car, let alone support a family working at Burger King.

We've all had to learn the hard way, says Kristina. But in her case, it was finding the right program and teachers who really do want her to succeed.

Ms. RIVERA: They're helping us look for jobs. They're letting us know about internships. They're pointing us to the right direction. They're just - they're showing us the different ways to get there.

SANCHEZ: Kristina, David and Blake all plan to go to college next year. Kristina wants to be a child psychologist; David, a policeman. And Blake? He wants to study film at the University of Rhode Island.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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