Our nation's academic communities and educational advocates have undoubtedly made great strides toward graduating our high school's students. Yet, despite historic advancements, an interplay of circumstances and lack of options prevent young people from earning a high school diploma and attaining a quality education. And without a high school diploma, high school non-completers face a future without opportunity. A deficit in high school graduation rates not only impacts the lives of these individuals, it can threaten higher education, our local communities and businesses, the economy and wellbeing of our nation as a whole.

Four leaders in education and America's youth virtually meet to engage in discourse over this prevailing concern of high school graduation. The more conversation we create surrounding the high school dropout crisis, the more awareness we can bring to the issue.

The discussion titled "Don't Call Them Dropouts" is led by Jonathan Zaff, the executive director for Center for Promise, a partnership with America's Promise and Tufts University. Panel experts include:

     - Ray McNulty, Chairman of the Penn Foster high school board, Dean of Education for Southern New Hampshire University and Chairman of the Board for the National Dropout Prevention Network.

     - Elayne Bennett, Founder and President of the Best Friends Foundation and spokesperson of adolescent behavior and development

     - Dr. Beth P. Reynolds, Executive Director of the National Dropout Prevention Center and Network

The "Don't Call Them Dropouts" discussion introduces the interplay of circumstances preventing nontraditional learners and disenfranchised young people from earning their high school diploma. The following series of insights draw upon the experts' dialogue and highlight how our academic communities and educational leaders can remedy these toxic circumstances and cultivate success for our nation's youth.

The first part of the "Don't Call Them Dropouts" series addresses the misrepresentation of the phrase "high school dropouts" and how the name "drop out" distorts the image of these young people. The series will then move into the positive influence of mentorship, support for the "Forgotten Middle" and close with strategies for raising high school graduation rates. Through this series, schools, school professionals, communities, families and students can gain insight into the current climate of our education systems and learn how we can join together in creating equal, attainable opportunity for all.

"Don't Call Them Dropouts" Part 1: Why The Word "Dropouts" is a Big Disservice to Students

For part one of the "Don't Call Them Dropouts" series, the term "dropout" is under scrutiny. Why is "dropout" an unfair misrepresentation of a young person who has left the school system?

The term "dropout" often conjures images of apathetic teenagers who actively chose a broken path. On the contrary, these are students who've left school for reasons that are often as reasonable as they are devastating. And they are coming back-or trying to- because the majority of these students want to create better lives than the ones they were given.1

To classify this group of learners as "dropouts" is to buy into the negative preconceptions associated with the term. The term hardly describes a student's real experience of leaving school.1 By removing the term from our lexicon, we can remove the negative stigma and therefore curb the potentially negative life outcomes of students who leave school early by encouraging their return.

Remove Blame

A student's choice to leave school before graduating is rarely a spur-of-the-moment decision. It often derives from a number of factors that add up over time. These students often face a cluster of issues that create a toxic cycle of abuse, instability (foster care system/homelessness) or needing to be the adult in the family-all things that hinder a student's ability to focus on school.

For example, Elayne Bennett, founder and president of Best Friends Foundation, states that only 40 percent of teen moms finish high school, and 30 percent of all noncompleting girls cite pregnancy as the cause. To compile these factors under a "dropout" classification places blame on the student and takes focus away from the adverse environments their education succumbed to.

The education achievement gap is not made up of statistics; it is made up of people, students with hopes and dreams and challenges. To paint them with a broad brush is to marginalize them. To render them merely as numbers is to refuse to see their faces, hear their voices and honor their stories.1

Non-completers are not necessarily done with education; oftentimes, they have life challenges that require a break from school. Many students do, ultimately aspire to gain a post-secondary education from a career college, be it by completing their GED or participating in a high school completion program. By taking "dropouts" out of our vocabulary, we create a nurturing environment, one that acknowledges students as "learners with life experience," as chairman of Penn Foster high school board Ray McNulty puts it.

Widen Paths

The major flaw in the traditional education system is that it treats everyone the same, whereas not everyone is on the same path. The school calendar is 185 days a year, which doesn't fit everybody's needs. Perhaps some people only need 60 days in math and 200 in language arts. The system isn't flexible enough, states McNulty. For students who leave school early, marking them as "dropouts" narrows the path even more, taking them down a bumpy road and making them feel as if there's no turning back.

What educators need to understand is that despite adversity, non-completers want to better themselves. They show resiliency and positivity under the most unfortunate circumstances. This optimism can be crushed by the negative connotation of "dropout." In McNulty's experience as a superintendent in New Hampshire, he told students he was putting them on sabbatical. "I told them they weren't a dropout but needed to take a break and come back when they are ready to come back. It really helped," he says.

Open Doors  

To drop out of something alludes to closing a chapter. Instead, let's open doors by establishing connections created through judgement-free zones that encourage students to return. Bennett suggests, "Change it to a term that means we want you to drop back in, come on back and learn more-something like "learners in progress"-you're just not done yet. Anytime you're ready, we want you back."

Contrary to popular belief, students who leave school early often seek connections with parents, other family members, school professionals and peers. The presence or absence of these connections drove many of the choices that young people made, including about school attendance and completion.1 What that shows is students are actively seeking acceptance and guidance to get through life's barriers in hopes of embarking on a pathway of success.

Even career colleges can take part in presenting opportunities that open doors for noncompleters. By offering avenues for high school completion you provide a sense of reassurance and acceptance these students lack in their everyday life. "Students not privileged with loving, nurturing families need to know that they don't have to turn to drugs or premature sexual relationships to find love. Life isn't over and they can succeed," says Bennett. To show students that the education system is not there to criticize, keep the door open. "Convey values to students in school, let them know their options," adds Bennett.

Check out Part: Two, Three, and Four of this series.

Resources: Photo; (1) Don't Call Them Dropouts