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.

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