Understanding the Barriers to High School Graduation

Today’s guest post comes from the Real Learning for Real Life Coalition, of which Illinois PTA is a member, and is by Stephanie J. Schmitz Bechteler, Ph.D., the Vice President and Executive Director of the Chicago Urban League.

High school graduation is one of the most important milestones teenagers must achieve as they transition into late adolescence and early adulthood. While there are many critical changes to be made regarding the quality of high school programs, curriculum, teaching strategies and school climate—particularly for our most vulnerable students—it is an undeniable truth that earning a high school diploma is the first step along the pathway to college or professional training and career development.

Some reformers believe that in the short term, we might have to grudgingly accept lower graduation rates as we increase educational standards and implement true college and career readiness in the high schools. This solution feels unsatisfying and potentially harmful to the students and parents most impacted by the resource and talent deficits found in many underperforming schools. The solution should not be to penalize students for the challenges faced by the schools and teachers, but to ensure that the schools can provide the students with the comprehensive set of services and supports that they need to succeed.

For students that face barriers or challenges above and beyond what their peers face, the attainment of a high school diploma is not always a guarantee. There are many factors, both individual, academic, and community-based, that can stand between a student and their diploma. Research over the past few decades has shown that these factors are more likely to impact groups often identified as the most vulnerable in our schools: students of color, students living in low-income household, students with disabilities and students with limited English speaking abilities. What are their challenges, and what do they need to succeed?

It is difficult to do all of the potential barriers justice in a short article, so this will summarize some of the main areas, and provide links to learn more. Academic barriers can begin very young for some students. Research has shown that access to quality pre-K and Kindergarten programming can provide students a foundation that lasts for the remainder of their academic career. Not performing at grade level in reading and math, even as early as 3rd grade, can be indicative of struggles that will be hard for students to overcome later on in their schooling. It’s clear that investments in early and elementary education are critical to high school success. Once students enter high school, student performance in the freshman year can predict how the student will fair during their remaining years. Students that are chronically truant and scoring low grades in core subjects are candidates for further assessment and intervention. And all students in high school should also be taught not just how to study and prepare for tests, but how to think critically can build what is known as an “investigative” approach to life and to studies. All students, not just those in the best schools, should have their curiosity nurtured and be rewarded for asking, “why?” or “how?” or “what if?”

Students also face personal and community barriers that are not as readily solved by schools, but need to at minimum be recognized and considered by teachers, administrators and education policymakers. Personal experiences faced by students—homelessness, trauma, health or mental health issues, lack of caring adults, needing to contribute financially to the home, involvement in the criminal justice system, racism and other forms of discrimination—significantly impact school performance and educational outcomes. It is hard enough to be a consistently engaged student, let alone if you are a student that has to balance these other factors with your learning. Schools that have the resources to provide supportive services above and beyond academic help, such as counseling or special programming, may be able to offset some of these challenges. But many schools in under-resourced communities lack the resources to scale the programming to fit student need. This is where community-school partnerships and adequate funding mechanisms are necessary. Community leaders, education reformers, policymakers and elected officials must work together to accurately and honestly examine equity gaps across the state and districts and then provide an influx of resources based on school or district need. This means that not all schools will get the same level of resources to support their students, nor should they. Schools get what they need, based on need and the statewide commitment to support all students equitably.

LINKS

 

Your Advocacy Matters, Especially Now

The school year is winding down, and many PTAs and members are thinking about end-of-the-year parties and summer activities. But the end of May also marks the end of the Illinois legislative session, and many of the issues that the General Assembly still faces will have a significant effect on your child and their school. Among those issues are:

  • The state budget for the next fiscal year
  • Additional education funding for the new Evidence-Based Funding model
  • Gun violence prevention and school safety
  • Children’s mental health
  • Juvenile Justice issues

Illinois PTA will be advocating on these and other issues as the legislative session wraps up. We will be filing witness slips on various bills, testifying before committees, and contacting legislators and the governor. But the true power of PTA comes through when our PTA members join us in speaking up for all the children of Illinois.

You Already Are an Advocate

If you’ve spoken to your child’s teacher about an issue in the classroom or with your child’s learning, you are already an advocate. If you have raised a question at a PTA meeting about why your child’s school has a certain policy, you are already an advocate. If you have every spoken at a school board meeting or placed a school referendum sign in your front yard, you are already an advocate.

Advocacy is simply speaking up for another, and PTA advocacy focuses on those who have little to no voice in the halls of power—our children. Many school boards and many legislators have few, if any, individuals speaking up on a particular issue. When you can share your viewpoint and tell how a policy or a bill will have a specific effect on your child, your family, or your community, you have tremendous influence on those who make the policies or pass the bills. Don’t take our word for it, look at what PTA advocates did to get drinking water in elementary schools tested for lead.

How to Advocate with the Legislature

Illinois PTA makes it easy to advocate with legislators. Join the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network by going to the Illinois PTA Advocacy page and entering your e-mail and ZIP code in the Quick Sign Up box on the right.

As a member of the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network, you will get occasional calls to action in your inbox. Simply click on the button in the e-mail, which will take you to a prewritten letter to your legislators. Take a moment to add any personal information, including how the bill will affect your child or school, up at the top of the letter, include your contact information, and hit send. That’s all there is to it.

We know that these e-mails do make a difference. Legislators also take notice when Illinois PTA leaders start their testimony on a bill with, “On behalf of the 80,000 members of the Illinois PTA…” Your advocacy, and your PTA membership, makes a difference for your child and for every child in Illinois.

 

10 Keys to Raising a Great Teenager

It can be difficult having a teenager in the house. At times, it seems like your kid has become a giant toddler, with every request from you met with “Why?” or “No.” And it’s not nearly as cute as it was then when they stamp their foot and pout. But this turmoil is also an essential part of becoming an adult.

To help you through these challenging years, All-Pro Dad has a list of ten keys to raising a great teenager. These keys are:

  1. Under all the scowls and frowns, your child is still there.
  2. Let your love show.
  3. Encourage their faith.
  4. Don’t talk at your teens.
  5. Remember to listen.
  6. Reinforce a standard with teens.
  7. Get to know their friends.
  8. Offer your wisdom.
  9. Help them stay focused.
  10. Take them on an adventure.

These keys will help you maintain your sanity through the teenage years, so check out the full article for more information on each one. And remember, just like the toddler years, the teenage years will eventually end.

Teacher Gifts That Go Beyond the Coffee Mug

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and the end of school is coming up fast. Are you at a loss for a gift for your child’s teacher? You know that another #1 Teacher mug is not the answer, but what is? Both National PTA’s Our Childrenmagazine and Great Schools! have suggestions for great teacher gifts.

National PTA’s article suggests:

  • Coffee and treats (perhaps with a gift card)
  • A supply gift box
  • A mobile battery charger
  • Something homemade
  • A crafty phone case
  • A personalized, handmade thank you card

Great Schools! has additional gift ideas, including:

  • Flowers or a live plant
  • A gift card for coffee, supplies, or something more indulgent
  • A gift basket with a theme
  • A donation to the teacher’s favorite cause
  • A donation to your child’s class

Avoid the mug or apple-shaped tchotchke. Check out both the National PTA article and the Great Schools! article for more information on these gift ideas.

Photo © 2011 by Edward Ross under Creative Commons license.