I have seven boys, and all of them struggled in high school.
None were star athletes or straight-A students. They just wanted
to get by, so they could grab their diplomas. They tended to do
well in interesting subjects, but in others they just drifted
My middle son, Josh, struggled with the transition between
middle school and high school. On one of his first days as a
high schooler at Wheaton-Warrenville South, [OUTSIDE CHICAGO] a
police officer pulled him out of class so that he would have to
endure the indignity of having both his locker and backpack
searched for drugs by a drug dog. He was clean, but for whatever
reason — maybe it was his long hair or the black circles under
his eyes from fall allergies – the authorities were sure he was
involved with drugs. Too bad the police didn’t know what I knew:
That he suffered immensely with fall allergies, that he always
looked like a zombie until first frost, when he would turn back
into the Josh I know and love.
Middle school posed no problems, but from the first day of
high school, Josh seemed to be profiled as a “potential
criminal.” His older brother, Steve, also attended the same high
school and would walk in the front door wearing the exact same
Pantera shirt as Josh and the disciplinarian would ignore Steve
and tell Josh to turn his shirt inside out for a dress code
violation. No wonder he felt like an outsider.
And he would have continued that way if it had not been for a
caring high school counselor who steered him into early
intervention and then into the kind of coursework he thrilled
in. In the end, Josh graduated from high school with decent
grades and a strong desire to study art in college.
His younger brother, Mark, had a rougher time of it. Bouncing
between our new home in Georgia and his old home in Illinois, he
struggled in so many ways, with classes and his relationships.
By March of his junior year, Mark totally decided, like many
before him, to drop out of high school.
His decision brought heartache to me, but according to the
U.S. Census Bureau, he was only one of the 1.2 million high
school students who dropout. Some states, such as Georgia, have
dropout rates that are more than 10 percent.
Because of his previous run-ins with the disciplinarian for
skipping classes, I think school officials were glad to see him
go. Of course, I tried to talk him out of it, but when a
17-year-old makes up their mind not to go to school; it’s not as
easy as when I could man-handle him into a car seat and strap
him in to take him someplace he didn’t want to go, like the
Mark needed a dose of real life, which he got when he moved
to Phoenix and found a job working in a grocery store. After
almost a year there, making minimum wage, he finally came to his
senses. He studied for and passed the General Education Diploma
(GED) then enrolled at a local technical school. He has
progressed to finishing his second semester at a regional
Thankfully, Mark’s story has a happy ending, but that’s not
always the case for today’s high school dropout. The
Center for Labor Market Studies says that “The costs of
dropping out of high school today are substantial and have risen
over time, especially for young men, who find it almost
impossible to earn an adequate income to take care of themselves
and their families.” (Center for Labor Market Studies, 2009, p.
We KNOW it’s bad for our citizens and our economy when
students don’t complete high school, so what are our cities and
schools doing to stop the flood? According to Kids Count
Indicator Brief study, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation
there are several strategies that can reduce America’s dropout
1. Adopt a long-term approach that begins to strengthen
2. Enhance the holding power of schools, with an intensive focus
on ninth grade.
3. Focus on the forces outside of school that contribute to
4. Address the needs of those groups at highest risk of dropping
5. Build on the skills and understanding of the adults who
affect teens’ motivation and ability to stay in school.
I’ve seen several of these strategies work in my boys’ cases.
Josh was identified as early as 9th grade as a dropout risk and
the school had a plan in place to catch him before it happened.
What’s truly sad is the research
uncovered by Kids Count. “Some researchers see evidence of a
“push-out” syndrome in many schools, where teachers and
administrators make little effort to hold onto potential
I don’t have room in this article to explore the many
possible interventions. Each child’s story is different and
might include an alcoholic or homeless parent. Each school is
different. But, if your child is struggling in school, he or she
is far from alone. Connecting with school counselors and key
teachers can go a long way toward helping our children move
forward in life.