Dropping Out, A Life-Changing Decision Each year, nearly 1 million teenagers stop going to school, a decision that can hound them for decades. The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is nearly twice that of the general population. They are more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, or live in poverty.

Dropping Out, A Life-Changing Decision

Dropping Out, A Life-Changing Decision

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Each year, nearly 1 million teenagers stop going to school, a decision that can hound them for decades. The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is nearly twice that of the general population. They are more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, or live in poverty.


Kenny Buchanan, dropped out at age 18
Claudio Sanchez, education correspondent, NPR
Patrick Lundvick, dropped out at age 15

LAURA SULLIVAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Laura Sullivan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Nearly 4 million kids will begin ninth grade for the first time this year but a fourth of them won't graduate. That decision often haunts them for decades.

Kenny Buchanan learned that through experience. He dropped out of school 26 years ago and Kenny joins us now from his home in Port Carbon, Pennsylvania. Kenny, nice to have you with us.

KENNY BUCHANAN: Nice to be on.

SULLIVAN: Kenny, can you take us through what happened? Why did you drop out?

BUCHANAN: Well, in first grade I failed. I failed first grade. But from there I moved on till eighth grade where I failed again. Now, failing twice was a big downer for me. You're the oldest kid in your class and they look up to you, the younger kids do, but with the attitude I had at that time was I wanted to make money. That was just the bottom line.

SULLIVAN: This is by the time you got to high school.

BUCHANAN: Yeah, by the time I got to high school. But at that point I had no interest in education at that time. I just wanted enough to make it out there in the world and I found out the hard way that's not - you need the education.

SULLIVAN: So when you dropped out of high school when you were a teenager, did you find a job right away? What kind of job did you get?

BUCHANAN: Yes. At that time it was easy to get a job. A lot of places didn't ask for a high school diploma. I started out, like, at Burger King.


BUCHANAN: From there I moved on to a department store. From there I went into a well-known business, Quaker-made Kitchens and made custom kitchens. And from there I went to a steel foundry and a fabrication shop and where I'm at right now, at Sapa Extrusions in Cressona, Pennsylvania.

But I will tell you, back then, times were different. It was easier to get a job. A lot of employers didn't look for that high school diploma. If you were willing to work, they'd hire you.

SULLIVAN: When did you start noticing that they would ask you for a diploma?

BUCHANAN: About four years, five years ago, when I was looking for prior jobs. I went to one place, it was a really well known place, and it was good-paying money. I did an interview - well, the way you did there you went to the company and they had a phone. That's how you did your application. You had an automated system.


BUCHANAN: I picked up the phone, I started doing the application, and when they got to the high school diploma and they ask you if you have one or not, and I said no. That was the end of my application. That was forfeited. It was gone.

SULLIVAN: How did you feel? How did you feel when the phone hung up?

BUCHANAN: It hurt. It hurt, because I knew I could probably do the jobs that were in that plant but because I didn't have that paper saying I graduated high school, that didn't mean nothing.

SULLIVAN: People might hear your story and say, well, you've been employed all these years, you know, maybe it didn't work out that bad for you. What do you think?

BUCHANAN: Well, excuse me. Maybe it didn't growing up but now this is a different era. This is a different time. Employers are looking for what I'm finding employers are looking for is not just a high school diploma; they want a secondary diploma. I went to school. I had the opportunity to go to school about a year ago.

My place laid me off, where I was working. So before I could go to school even I needed a high school diploma.

SULLIVAN: Oh, wow.

BUCHANAN: Oh, yeah. Before I could've took any kind of course I needed that high school diploma. Otherwise they wouldn't accept you.

SULLIVAN: What would you say to a teenager right now that says this is just a waste of my time? I don't need to be in school.

BUCHANAN: I'd tell the teenager and your viewers that have quit school or are thinking about it: do not quit school. That would be one of the biggest mistakes of your life. I regretted it and anyone that knows me that I, you know, that I could tell that could tell you, I say that all the time the whole time I didn't have my high school diploma. I regret quitting school.

It's not an easy world out there. It's tough. And you want to make things easier on yourself. That high school diploma, believe it or not, will make things a little easier for you as far as getting a job, getting into school, even into the military. I applied after I quit school. I tried to get in the military. I actually had to go and they wanted a high school diploma.

SULLIVAN: They did too. Yeah.

BUCHANAN: Yes, they did. And they without that high school diploma, it was tough. They wouldn't even take me without that high school diploma.

SULLIVAN: Well, Kenny, we wish you all the best in your future endeavors of work and thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your experience with us.


SULLIVAN: Kenny Buchanan.

BUCHANAN: And thank everything.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. And Kenny Buchanan joined us from his home in Port Carbon, Pennsylvania. Kenny was profiled by NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez in a series that ran this week on America's dropout crisis. The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is nearly twice that of the general population.

They're more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, or live in poverty. Dropouts also cost federal and state governments billions of dollars in lost earnings, welfare, and medical costs. If you dropped out of high school, where are you now? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the evolving signs of concealment. Guy Cramer talks to us about his work designing camouflage. But first, the cost of dropping out. NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez joins us here in Studio 3A. Claudio, so nice to have you with us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here, Laura.

SULLIVAN: About a million teens drop out every year. What does that decision mean for their future?

SANCHEZ: From their vantage point, some of these kids can't look beyond a day, a week, so often, unlike Kenny who we just heard, it's only after they've been out there realizing how tough it is that they regret not finishing their school.

For this country collectively as a society, you know, we have been dealing with this issue for decades, if not generations. And the reason it has become such an urgent matter, not that it hasn't been urgent, but more now than ever is because of the economy. Because of what Kenny was saying, that it's so much tougher out there.

I mean, the fact that so many companies now as a matter of corporate policy require a high school diploma or a GED is very new. That's very recent. It wasn't an issue, you know, a few years ago. So here's a trend now that requires a credential of some sort in order for you to even get through or even be considered.

That's so new that a lot of young people still don't understand what the consequences are for not having or earning that credential.

SULLIVAN: Is it getting worse over time or is it getting better?

SANCHEZ: It's actually getting the dropout rate, anyway, at least what the data and I have to say that the data is so unreliable in many ways because we don't have, really, a good way of collecting dropout data, but what's there...

SULLIVAN: And all the schools are collecting it differently.

SANCHEZ: Right. Back in 1960 I think the number that I saw was that the federal government had a figure that it had was that 24 percent of high school kids dropped out. That was pretty high for the time. These days it's more in the low teens or maybe 7, 8 percent. Now, I don't know whether that data is that reliable, but the fact that it's now so different from what it was 40 years ago is telling.

Now, the reason that we are now seeing dropout rates of upwards of 20, 30, 40, 50 percent in some communities is because, you know, public education is in turmoil. Public education these days doesn't know how to deal with kids who, for whatever reason, can't function in that traditional classroom. So you have many, many children who are essentially dropping out as early as fifth grade and by the time they get to high school, even if they haven't physically dropped out, they're so far behind school doesn't work for them for whatever reason.

And so there's been a reluctance to really get a handle on what alternative settings could possibly work for these kids. There are exemplary programs across the country, but collectively, we don't have a real answer for dealing with these children.

SULLIVAN: Did you find that it was the same across the board? Or did cities do better than rural counties? Did some groups do better than others? Is there any trends there?

SANCHEZ: Well, in approaching the series, we thought we need to find a geographically representative sample of kids, rural, urban, suburban even, all race groups, all racial and ethnic groups represented. And I don't think there was that much of a difference among these groups in terms of why they left school. You cited some of the reasons. What I think is a big difference is rural communities, unlike suburban or urban communities or school systems have much fewer resources to deal with the problem.

So these days, according to the U.S. Department of Education, a fifth of all so-called dropout factories are in rural communities, very small communities like the one we profiled in our series in Oconee County, South Carolina. There, the conditions under which kids drop out are generational. They have a lot to do with the job market in those areas, the fact that there are very few jobs that can employ these kids, and the fact that these are communities that are changing dramatically, their economies, their demographics. So the reasons kids drop out remain the same. The consequences and how these kids deal with, you know, having dropped out are different in these different settings.

SULLIVAN: Just sort of quickly, one of the things that some people might be wondering is, you know, you can picture an 18 year old dropping out. You can picture a 17 year old hanging out on the streets. What does a fifth grader do all day when they've dropped out?

SANCHEZ: Well, for kids that young, for fifth graders, as we found out in our story from Baltimore, these are kids who aren't necessarily dropouts in the traditional sense of the term. In other words, they still have some relationship to the school. The problem is that these are kids who are missing 20, 50 or more days of school a year and so they're absent. I mean, they're just not there and schools are very hard pressed to track them down.

One of the basic problems that schools have altogether is that there are no tracking mechanisms to say, well, Jimmy or Johnny aren't coming to school. Here's how we can find them.

SULLIVAN: We're talking with NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez about his series on high school dropouts. If this is your story, tell us, where are you now? 800-989-8255 or by email, talk@npr.org. I'm Laura Sullivan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


SULLIVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. You may have heard Claudio Sanchez's report this week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on America's dropout crisis. It's a five part series. If you missed any of them, we've posted the links on our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent and is with us here in Studio 3A. And if you dropped out of high school - that could be last year or 50 years ago - where are you now? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. You can also drop us an email at talk@npr.org.

And joining us now, another of the people who appeared in Claudio's series, Patrick Lundvic. He left high school in ninth grade at age 15 and he joins us from the studios at WBEZ, our member station in Chicago. Patrick, thanks so much for coming in to talk with us.

PATRICK LUNDVIC: Thank you for having me.

SULLIVAN: We've heard a lot of statistics on the show today about how tough it can be for students who drop out to find a job and make a life for themselves. Did anyone try to tell you that before you made your decision to drop out?

LUNDVIC: People always told me before I made my decision and things I did that it was going to get harder in the end. The decisions I made stick to me forever.

SULLIVAN: What is it that - do you feel - do you wish that they had been able to get through to you more? How could they have gotten through to you?

LUNDVIC: They couldn't have. I mean, sometimes, you really just got to live and learn.


LUNDVIC: You know, you learn from your mistakes and, in the end, I learned from mine.

SULLIVAN: What was the moment where you first really regretted having left?

LUNDVIC: School?


LUNDVIC: I'd have to say it just hit me one day when I was just sitting on my porch thinking of all the things I want to do, but in order to do them, you need money. And the kind of money you need to do them, I didn't have and really couldn't get my hands on, even if I tried the hardest in these streets.

SULLIVAN: And now, you have ended up - you are back in school after you dropped out for a while?

LUNDVIC: Yes. I'm in line to get...

SULLIVAN: Where are you now?

LUNDVIC: I'm in line to get my A+ certification. After that, I might do something with database programming or telecommunication.

SULLIVAN: So now it sounds like you've completely changed your mindset on this.

LUNDVIC: Yeah. Well, you have to change your whole mindset. I mean, people tell you, you know, you're not going to make it. You're not going to make it. You've messed up too bad. You're not going to make it. You've just got to keep the mind setting of that no matter what, you will make it and, sure enough, you start to make it.

SULLIVAN: When you were out of school for a number of years, I believe, what did you do all day? What was that like?

LUNDVIC: You just chill. You know, you get to kick back. You find things to do. I mean, I used to spend all day downtown, walking up and down Lakeshore Drive, walking back and forth from neighborhood to neighborhood. Sometimes, you just spend all day at the mall walking in a circle. You don't even know why, but you're just doing it because you're bored.

SULLIVAN: When you were in school, how did you feel about it?

LUNDVIC: How did I feel about what?

SULLIVAN: School. Being in school every day. Having to show up and sit there. What did you feel like when you had to go there?

LUNDVIC: Before or after I dropped out?

SULLIVAN: Right before you dropped out.

LUNDVIC: Well, it just - the subjects start to get boring. I mean, it seems like, sometimes, the more you start to accelerate in a subject, the more you start to pay attention to it. You start to look at it as I can already do that. I don't want to do that no more. So all the subjects started to get boring and boring and finally, I just stopped going and then, I mean, when I got back into school after about three and a half years, it even says in Claudio's report, I had no problem with reading, math and all the most of the education that I got from them three years was on the streets.

SULLIVAN: Now, it sounds like, in a lot of ways, school just wasn't challenging for you at all. There was nothing - maybe it was almost too easy in some ways or maybe you were just - were you just sort left in the back of the classroom and nobody was really paying attention?

LUNDVIC: It's a little bit of both. I mean, some teachers really don't care. They just say what they're paid to say and then sit in their desk like, all right. Do the assignment. And then when you ask for help, they look at you like you should know this.


LUNDVIC: There are some teachers that care, though, that actually explain everything, you know, break down into key details of simpler steps that you could take to proceed in a procedure of math or reading. You know, something that can help you accelerate instead of just staying stuck at where you're at.

SULLIVAN: When you dropped out in ninth grade, you were 15. What did your family say?

LUNDVIC: My ma didn't know.

SULLIVAN: How did she not know?

LUNDVIC: Basically, what I did was I got up every morning and I left and just went out and she thought I was going to school, but I had like - there was a basement apartment, and by the basement apartment, there was like a little cutoff area where you could go underneath the gangway porch. I used to go down there and I had a backpack where I'd switch clothes and then just go walk around with my friends if we ditched.

SULLIVAN: Oh, so she thought you were going to school, but you were really just swapping out your clothes and whatnot.

LUNDVIC: Yeah. And then when she did find out, like Claudio says, I was sent to Rantoul, Illinois, Lincoln Challenge Military Academy.

SULLIVAN: So she wasn't too happy.

LUNDVIC: No. She wasn't.


SULLIVAN: How was the military academy? Is that what it was? A military academy?

LUNDVIC: Yes. And it wasn't very well. The first two weeks you're there, you get broken down. I winded up getting kicked out, though, of there and came right back.

SULLIVAN: Where do you see yourself going now? You're back on the track that will probably lead toward a diploma and a job and a future. Where do you see that future?

LUNDVIC: Hopefully, I see that future with a nice, maybe two-story house, a couple apartment buildings in my possession, a nice car for me, a nice car for my wife. You know, just living the happy life, no problems, not having to worry about looking over my back.

SULLIVAN: And that must be a big part of it, just being able to be comfortable. It sounds like that's what you're looking for.

LUNDVIC: Not just that. I'm tired of being a stereotypical person. You know, every time someone sees me in the streets, they just - there's another one of them hoodlums or thugs or one of them kids that - you know, they tell their kids, you don't hang around with people like that.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. And you think that the high school diploma will definitely be your ticket out of that.

LUNDVIC: Oh, most definitely. And I'm not going to stop at a high school diploma. Like I said, I plan on going on to maybe a couple of degrees.

SULLIVAN: Good for you. Patrick, we wish you the best of luck with that and just hope that we can track your progress in the coming years. Patrick Lundvic dropped out of high school in ninth grade at age 15. He's now enrolled in Youth Connections, a charter school program for dropouts in Chicago, and he joined us from member station, WBEZ in Chicago. Patrick, thank you so much for joining us and talking to us.

LUNDVIC: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

SULLIVAN: Claudio, is this something that you saw a lot of with the students that you talked to?

SANCHEZ: In terms of kids who, like Patrick, who were either bored to death or felt they were...

SULLIVAN: Exactly.

SANCHEZ: Yeah. For whom school did not fit, I think that that is a major problem. I mean, I wouldn't be able to break it down but - because there are so many reasons why kids leave school. Boredom is one of them. And, actually, Patrick is a really good example of a very bright young man who, you know, didn't have problems with reading or math or any of the traditional subjects that schools deal with or try to impart. But certainly, there was little or no option for him in a traditional public school, especially a big one like the one he went to. I mean, you get lost in these places and unless there is a caring adult or teacher, someone who'll seize that potential in you - well, again, what are the incentives for showing up to school if you're bored half the time?

SULLIVAN: Well, let's hear from our listeners. Let's go to April in Salem, Oregon. Welcome to the program.

APRIL: Hello. Hi.


APRIL: I'd just like to say that I think if they brought the anti-poverty programs to the schools, such as summer youth employment or through the other part of the year, part time employment to allow low income kids particularly a chance to earn money to stay in school so that their families can also stay afloat somewhat - I think the level of heavy poverty in this country to our own born-here citizens is very hard and it's not looked at all. It's not acknowledged, particularly low income white poverty. I'm Native American and white and I never hear mention of white poverty at all.

SULLIVAN: It's an important point. April, thank you so much for your call. We appreciate it.

And here we have an email from Dee(ph). I dropped out in 1980 intending to finish through correspondence courses. I got married in 1981, took my GED and then took two remaining required courses through adult education. I couldn't afford to work because of child care costs. I had babysat for other people through my 20s while my husband worked. We divorced and I had no skills to get a job more than minimum wage. At 37, I went back to school full time while raising four sons as a single parent. I am now employed full time and nearly done with my masters degree.

Claudio, did you find a lot of people that, when they went back, I mean, like this woman, just really - I mean, they went back and even what we heard from Patrick - is going for multiple degrees in their future.

SANCHEZ: You see a lot of that, especially among the older dropouts, people 25 years and older, and Kenny was a good example of that.

You know, there was a great study, one of a kind, I've not seen anything like it. American Council on Education reported that of the 40 million Americans in this country without a high school diploma, 60 percent were 40 years or older, predominantly white - 62 percent, I believe. And these are people who have now realized they needed that credential.

And so programs like the GED - which is not like a high school diploma, but rather the closest thing to it - those programs have blossomed, and not just as part of, you know, local school districts but part of community colleges and all kinds of non-profits who help people come back. And, you know, that credential may or may not reflect the basic skills that a person needs to get back into the workforce. Again, it's more the fact that it's a credential that says this person is trying and has tried to come back, and so it conveys that.

And I think that a lot of employers - although in this economy, I'm not sure how much - how helpful it is because, you know, employers are looking for people who are just hard workers. That credential is important, but with so many people out of work today, even with their, you know, bachelor's or master's degree, I mean, it's such a cutthroat environment for people who want to come back and find a good job, something that's steady, certainly something that gives them a living wage.

SULLIVAN: Now, let's hear from Bert(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Welcome.

BERT: Hi. I'll be 60 this year, and I tell you I don't think a day does go by now I don't think about why I left school. But I'm from around Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. I left in '69 because I missed - a semester of English. The teacher failed me because of bad attitude. But I was into music, and I stayed around music business until mid-'80s and then became - I was a sound technician, and made it all the way through here till 2001 and came up to Portland from California.

And I don't think once I was asked for the high school because my - I didn't leave school because I couldn't handle it. I left school because it just was, you know, there's a stigma back in '69 if you had any failing grades along with the passing grades.

SULLIVAN: Oh, I see.

BERT: But now, for me, I find that it's - I'm not sure the competition with young people right now. I don't know if it's the high school, or I think you said before it was the secondary - post-high school education that really makes a difference, because whether or not you have a lot of experience or not, if you don't have any of that post-secondary education, there's really a lot of road blocks, no matter what your age is.

SULLIVAN: Claudio, are you sort of hearing the same thing that Bert feels like, that it might not even be enough to get a high school diploma, maybe you need a college diploma, too?

SANCHEZ: I think that's clear. Although, again, you know, given - I think it's 35, maybe 40 percent of Americans who have a post-secondary education in this country, we're still very much behind on the number of people who can even claim that they have that, you know, post-secondary education credential. I think we're still looking at many, many Americans who essentially have to rely on that high school credential to enter the workforce.

One really interesting thing about how we went about looking for this story, you know, when we initially started looking for someone to interview, people to talk to, we put out a message on Facebook, NPR's Facebook, and the overwhelming response was from people who said I didn't need high school. I hated high school. High school just didn't do it for me. All I wanted to do was go out, like Kenny was saying, you know, go out and get a job, earn some money, start a family.

And so, you know, there is still, I think, this sentiment that high school, for many people, is a waste of time. But what that means is that high schools have to change. High schools have to begin to address the problems that many people feel exist, which is the relevancy of a high school education, the fact that we've almost killed vocational education in this country because there is - there are very options for young people, even if they're really bright, who want to work with their hands, for example.

And so, you know, you show up for school, and if something doesn't hook you, if you're not passionate about something, about learning, and if you love working with your hands, well, what are the options? And I think that that contributes a lot to the dropout rate.

SULLIVAN: We're talking to Claudio Sanchez, NPR's education correspondent. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Claudio, one of the things that came out through your reporting in this series is that it really does affect the dropouts, but it also affects society and that the rest of everybody else is gonna pay the price for these kids' decisions. How? How is that happening?

SANCHEZ: Mostly in terms of what we pay, the ripple effects. In California alone, the figure that I thought was staggering out there was that - I mean, here's a state that's essentially broke. And the costs that I saw - based on the studies that I saw - the costs are $46 billion at least in health care, welfare, incarceration certainly, and lost wages, lost income - I mean, the numbers are amazing. And at a time when we're all worried about how this country's economy is doing, the fact that that much money is being siphoned in order to be able to care for or deal with the consequences of dropouts is, again, it's mindboggling.

The other costs, of course, we don't know of is how this affects entire families, how this affects entire generations of children who will then, you know, essentially follow in the footsteps of either siblings or parents who didn't finish high school, either. I mean, this is a continuing and mounting debt that we're facing because of just how complicated life becomes for people who don't finish school.

SULLIVAN: And certainly, there are some people who have done well without their high diploma. There are people here or there, I'm sure. And I think, actually, we have one of them in an email from Ken(ph) in Portland, Oregon. She said: I do not have a single regret about dropping out of eighth grade. Their curriculum was not geared toward my style of learning, and the social situation among that age range is atrocious. I was constantly bored and uncomfortable. My GPA was 1.6 in spite of my high IQ. I worked retail and service industry jobs for over a decade. I finally found my direction and am now the owner of a successful apparel company. My advice to young people, if you do not have the drive within you, then try to take advantage of the free education while you have it.

So, in a way, she's saying stay for the free education, but she also - she managed to pull it out OK, it sounds like, in the end, and certainly not the norm for most people.

SANCHEZ: There's a lot of kids like that. There is a lot of certainly people now in their 30s and 40s who feel that, you know, it would have been perhaps even a mistake to have stayed in school. But as we know, I mean, these are, I think, often the exception to the rule.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. NPR's education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez. Thank you so much for joining us.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

SULLIVAN: Claudio's series run all week this week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find those links at npr.org. Click TALK OF THE NATION.

Up next, building a better camouflage. Guy Cramer decided he could do it better, and now supplies armies all around the world. He joins us next to talk about the art and science of concealment. I'm Laura Sullivan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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