Teachers Open Up On Why Kids Really Drop Out

It's the end of the school year, and teachers and students are enjoying some downtime. But some kids won't be going back to school next fall because about a million students drop out every year. Host Michel Martin discusses the dropout crisis with teachers from three cities with high dropout rates: Las Vegas, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it is a first at an historically black college or university. Bowie State University - that's in suburban Maryland - has just opened a resource center for gay, lesbian and transgender students. We'll tell you more about it in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's the end of the school year. Teachers and students are packing up their desks and getting ready to enjoy some down time, so over the course of the summer - and you've probably picked this up already - we're going to be talking about a lot of important issues in education.

Today, though, we're going to talk about all the kids who might not make it back to school in the fall. Every year, about a million students drop out of school, according to the American Graduate Program. That's a public media initiative aimed at raising graduation rates. That amounts to about 7,000 students every day.

Why so many? Well, students might get sidetracked with a full time job or get involved in a gang or some other unsavory activity or there might be other reasons. Those are some of the reasons teachers gave at a recent town hall meeting conducted by the program and here's another.

MARLON NEAL, SR.: The problem is the transiency rate. When they get kicked out of one school, they leave that school. We get them conditioned and ready to go back to school. They go to a different school. If you've been kicked out of three or four schools, at some point, you are losing your credits. Now, we have to send them to adult school.

MARTIN: That's Marlon Neal, Sr. He's a teacher at Biltmore Continuation School in Las Vegas. He participated in one of the American Graduate Teacher Town Halls.

We decided to try to have our own mini town hall of sorts, so we reached out to teachers from around the country. Joining us now, Barrett Taylor, a communications arts teacher at Metro Academic and Classical High School in St. Louis, Missouri. Janet Heard(ph) is a career and technical teacher at South Continuation High School in the Clark County School District. That's in Las Vegas. Also with us here in Washington, D.C., David Tanzi. He is a math teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to you all. Thank you for coming.

BARRETT TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

JANET HEARD: Thank you for having us.

DAVID TANZI: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So I'd like to just start with a simple question. What do you think is the main reason students are dropping out of high school? David Tanzi, I'll start with you.

TANZI: Well, thank you. I think that what the person who was quoted earlier said hits the nail on the head, that a lot of it is consistency, that there's nothing to draw a kid in, nothing to keep them there because everything seems to be shifting under their feet.

At my high school, I've been there three years, I'm considered a veteran. And, starting next year, my club, the Gentlemen of Dunbar, will be the only club that's been running for four years. My first semester of school, one kid said to me, why should I care what you have to say? You won't be here next year.

And the sad thing was he was wrong about me, but he was right about a lot of teachers and it seems to be our policy of the day - at least, in D.C. - that, you know, we can pick up a new teacher whenever we have to, so we don't care about the greater vision of the school and so it becomes less and less relevant to a kid.

MARTIN: Janet Heard, what do you think?

HEARD: Well, I think, fundamentally, we are missing one of the most important components that helps our children graduate - are the parents. Parent involvement, to me, is very, very important because it helps to build that support after they leave the classroom.

We need to set up more outreach, you know, with our government money that will help fund onsite parent programs to empower them about the educational process.

Las Vegas is a very unique place because it's a 24-hour town. You may have a father that works at nine o'clock shipping. You have a mother that works at a graveyard shift. So you find a lot of students that are unsupervised. OK. They can't make the parent-counselors' meetings, the teacher-parent meetings. It's a very difficult situation for a lot of the parents. So this is why, when you have a 24-hour town, you know, it has some social ramifications to it.

MARTIN: Interesting. Barrett Taylor, you work at a blue ribbon school where students meet high academic standards set by the U.S. Department of Education. You've also taught in schools where a lot of the kids came from low income backgrounds and were struggling academically. What's your take on this?

TAYLOR: You know, I grew up, I guess, in the middle class or upper middle class background and, when I came into the system that I'm currently teaching in, you know, at first, I thought, OK. Well, it's the kids' fault, but then, when I started observing some of the kids and started talking to some of the parents and started seeing where they were growing up and started seeing the difference in education that they were getting than I had received, I realized that I think it's the system that has set these kids up to fail because, when I started talking to some of my kids and I started realizing that, you know, growing up in poverty, there are so many different things that they have going on in their lives that affect them and then they have to come to school.

And they're, in some cases, not receiving, you know, the best education. I think that affects them, so my big thing is that I think, in the last 10 or 20 years we've really pushed education reform, but we really need to look at reforming society to help out these kids who come from these impoverished backgrounds because they have so much more they have to do just to get an education - a decent one - so...

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about dropout rates with three high school teachers. With us, Janet Heard, a career and technical teacher in Las Vegas, Barrett Taylor, an English teacher in St. Louis and David Tanzi, a math teacher in Washington, D.C.

You know, part of the reason we're talking about the dropout issue is that education is just more important today than it was, say, 30 years ago. You know, maybe 30 years ago, you could get a job that you could support a family on, you know, with a high school diploma. Today, that's very hard to do. So obviously, there's a lot more concern about American kids being able to kind of take their place in the world without adequate education.

When you think about all the things that you see every day, are you encouraged by the fact that we're talking about it more? Are you discouraged? Do you think we're making progress, Barrett Taylor?

TAYLOR: I think one problem is we sort of assume just because you have, you know, a high school diploma means that you have an education. But I guess the thing you should look at is, you know, if you have a high school diploma, did you get a good education? Can you go to college and not take any remedial classes and go straight into courses that you can earn credit?

In some schools around the country in places I've seen, you know, kids come out of school and they get these diplomas and they actually mean something. They can go to school and go right into the higher level classes, but then some kids get diplomas and the diploma means nothing because they can't go to school and get - they have to take remedial classes for two years, so they're wasting their money. So I'm on the fence. I think we really need to push academic standards in some of these schools and raise the bar to make sure these kids are getting a good education.

MARTIN: Janet, what about you? Glass half full, glass half empty?

HEARD: Well, I think it's half full. I did a career fair for my kids and some of the students that I'm working with right now are coming off of probation. Some of them are in house arrest. So we did a career fair and these kids are somewhat of the forgotten population of the school district. But we had a great response from the career and technical schools, the vocational schools, and some of these kids will not go into a four year college. You know, I think they will work in a career that'll kind of sustain them and their families and then they'll eventually - if they want to go into management, you know, these jobs, they want to see, you know, if you can perform doing certain tasks and they'll make them go and get a four year degree.

MARTIN: But what you seem to be saying is you don't think this is fixable. Is that what I'm...

HEARD: I do.

MARTIN: Is that what you're saying?

HEARD: No, no. It is fixable, but we have to, you know, expose them to alternatives because of the economy.

TAYLOR: Janet?

HEARD: Yes.

TAYLOR: I think the issue is is that we expect these kids to do it at 15 years old when they've never been doing it. We have to start exposing these kids to books and different activities at two and three years old.

HEARD: Very much so.

TAYLOR: If we do that, then the kids can achieve. We wait too long to start giving them rigorous classes and start having high expectations for them.

HEARD: Exactly.

MARTIN: David, what do you think? Are you glass half full, glass half empty? What do you think? Are you encouraged? Are you discouraged?

TANZI: I'm encouraged by some of the work I see teachers doing. I am very worried about the politicization of public education because it seems like, now, people want slogans more than they want something long term.

One of my big issues is I think we need to be asking ourselves, when a kid finishes high school, what do they need to know? Because I think we need to accept the reality of what we measure is what we do and, right now, at least in D.C., we measure kids on English and math.

I think schools and teachers need to provide a bridge. A bridge needs to have a foundation where the kid is and where we're trying to get them so that they can understand what the path is. And so, unless we have a broader curriculum that helps kids understand, OK, here's the world. In my class, I have them do a college collage and career analysis project where they backwards map from what career they'd like. They hang out on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. They find out what jobs they're interested in, figure out how much debt they can afford, what college they have to go to, etc.

But, if we don't help contextualize what they're learning and help them see how to make it relevant in the real world, then they might come out with A's and B's and totally unfamiliar with the current - especially economic - reality.

MARTIN: Well, to that economic reality, I did want to ask you - and I know that none of you came here with the intention of having a pity party - but the fact is that a lot of jurisdictions are under a lot of financial stress right now. Cuts are taking place. A lot of budgets are really squeezed.

And I wonder, when you look at that, do you feel that you can give the kids what they need in order to help them stay interested? Because, David, you were saying that part of the issue for you is that a lot of the kids just don't see the point. Do you feel that you've got the tools that you need to keep the kids interested?

TANZI: No. One of the battles here in D.C. recently has been the budget's been raised technically, but cut for a lot of aspects that I think are essential. We are, A, narrowing the curriculum, so it's just on sort of core subjects.

I think that makes it very hard to grab a kid and keep him interested. A kid needs to feel like they're getting better. They've learned how to master something. And it really disheartens the kids because they stop believing that the school is there to help them.

MARTIN: Janet, what about you? As we've mentioned that Las Vegas has had some serious, you know, economic issues related to sort of the overall economy. Has that affected your work?

HEARD: Oh, you'd better believe it. I just got an email. They're laying off 400 teachers. The legislation - sometimes, it's the last budget that they tend to balance is education. So, yeah. It's really affected a lot of different things, especially in the classroom. You know, when we need more technology, if I don't have access to all the computers that I need, the information that they can research, it brings on a problem. Like, we have a computer down. We can't replace it. Or we need new keyboards or, you know, various things like that.

So it does, you know, kind of cramp the things that we need, you know, to push them forward.

MARTIN: Barrett Taylor, what about you?

TAYLOR: You know, I've just learned to make do without. There's a lot of things that I wish I had in my classroom and I've asked and I did not get them, so I just said, you know what? We're going to do without and I have the kids get their own books or I have the kids do this and that. But you know, it'd be nice to have some of those things, but you know, I've done well without them. So it's not one of those - at the moment, it's not something that I've just - you know, I've really harped on.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you all go - and thank you all so much for taking the time to talk with - what's keeping you going? What's keeping you going, Barrett?

TAYLOR: What's keeping me going? You know, I love the classroom. I love kids. I have a passion for, you know, teaching kids. I put the red tape and the bureaucracy to the side and I said, well, every day I come, I'm going to make myself get better and I'm going to try to improve my kids. That keeps me going every day.

MARTIN: Janet, what's keeping you going?

HEARD: Well, the teaching, of course, because I love doing that, but also having some great administrators that I work with that allow me to have the autonomy to get out and be creative and develop, you know, different types of programs for the kids onsite.

And, also, my after-school program that I have. It's an entrepreneurship where the kids compete, so you know, it keeps me fresh and it keeps me creative and have fun with my students.

MARTIN: David, what's keeping you going?

TANZI: I love my kids. They are some of the most remarkable people I've ever worked with that - Reverend Al Sharpton spoke at our graduation this week and he opened saying, you guys can't be blamed for the circumstance that you were born into. You didn't choose any of those things. But what got you here, you did choose.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you all so much for doing that. You know, it's customary when people are in military service and wear the uniform, we thank them for their service, but you are also kind of engaged in public service and doing something very important. So I just want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your service and what you're doing for the kids and really for the country.

David Tanzi's a math teacher at Dunbar High School. That's in Washington, D.C. He was here with us in Washington, D.C. in our studios here. Janet Heard is a career and technical teacher at South Continuation High School in the Clark County School District. That's in Las Vegas. She joined us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Barrett Taylor is a communications arts teacher at Metro Academic and Classical High School. He joined us from St. Louis, Missouri.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

HEARD: Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

TANZI: Thank you.

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