Why Youth Still Drop Out

Dingy water stains stared back at Michael in history class. For the tenth time this week, he was listening to a lecture in order to prepare for a test. He couldn’t take another minute if it weren’t Friday afternoon right before the beginning of summer break. Fortunately, he could make himself wait a few more days before checking out. Next year, well, Michael expected to get a job and not come back to school next year.

After almost 15 years of consulting nonprofits, K-12 schools, and government agencies across the nation, last year I took a position with the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council, or PacMtn, as their youth services coordinator. Hungry to get learn about a different support system for youth, I chose PacMtn because they support young people ages 14 to 24 who are re-engaging in school, training, and the workforce.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of partnering with dozens of agencies serving thousands of youth across my region. Meeting young people of all ages, working with seasoned and new youth workers and agency leaders, and learning new insights into youth disengagement and dropout have highlighted my experience at PacMtn so far.

For all these years of consulting, I’ve focused on youth engagement in communities and student voice in schools. I learned a lot through my research and practice, and from colleagues across the nation and around the world. However, I’ve had many new lessons in my current position.

So many people are working so diligently to engage youth in schools, or re-engage them in finishing schools, getting training, or finding employment. So why are youth still making the conscious choice to leave school, leave these programs, or leave jobs? Here are five reasons youth still drop out.

5 Reasons Youth Still Drop Out

  • Youth Are Taught To See Themselves As Failures. Between parents who are too busy or depressed to care, teachers who are too overwhelmed to focus on them, and lawmakers too beholden to give them the supports they need to succeed, many youth are actually taught to see themselves as failures. That comes from the culture surrounding them, including tv and music; schools they attended, including teachers and curriculum; and the social safety net that let them fall to low, low heights.
  • Many Adults Have Given Up On Many Youth. Driven by standardized testing, mandatory evaluations, prescripted youth programs, and byzantine policies, many youth workers, teachers, and others have given up on many of the youth they’re supposed to serve. Instead of believing “youth are the future”, they believe youth are merely numbers to achieve program goals, or ineffective contributors to the economy, civic society, and world around them.
  • Traditional Youth Activities Serve Traditionally Engaged Youth, And Fail Everyone Else. Youth leadership, community service, and even traditional youth empowerment programs actually fail to serve a lot of young people today! Too reliant on youth complacency and obedience, these programs are failing to foster modern thinking, implement accurate strategies, and create successful cultures that engage disengaged youth. This is happening in epidemic proportions in many, many communities, especially affecting low-income and poor youth.
  • Most Adults Expect Youth To Change To Meet Today’s Needs. Rather than acknowledging that the economy is changing, the job market is realigning, and needs and wants are different now than ever before, most adults expect young people to change to meet today’s needs in the economy. This is carryover thinking from the old education model, which sought to mold students into the types of learners teachers were capable of teaching. This is a disingenuous perspective, because the future economy depends on nimble thinking, transformative action, and creative realities.
  • Youth Engagement Isn’t Really The Goal. When most adults talk about youth engagement, they’re actually talking about youth obedience. They want young people to comply with the expectations, values, perspectives, and realities of adults, and not their own. They couch their expectations by talking about activities being youth-led or youth-driven, but in reality, they only make programs for youth who comply with adult expectations or desires. In this way, they seek conformity, not engagement.

These lessons have sunk into my skin slowly, and they smart as they soak in. I believe its our responsibility as ethical practitioners—youth workers, teachers, social workers, and community leaders—to respond to authentic requests for youth engagement. What steps can you take to ensure youth stay in schools and our community programs?

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