The most important voices in a discussion on reducing the dropout rate are those of the people most affected: the students who leave school early.
The three youth who shared their stories with us range in age from 18 to 25. They have all, since dropping out, returned to some form of schooling and are working hard at it. The special programs they’ve taken advantage of have been crucial to their academic success. While their paths and challenges were all different, what they have in common is that the regular high school program did not work for them.
PAUL-ÉMILE HÉBERT, Montreal, QC
Paul-Émile is fluent and articulate in his second language, English. High school for him seems to have involved a series of setbacks, complications and discouragements, all reinforcing the message: “School is not my thing.”
How did you come to leave high school early?
Things started to go wrong when I left the private school I had attended through Grade 7 and followed my older brother into public school. There, based I guess on reports from my old school that I was inattentive and had ADD, they placed me in a “chemin particulier de formation”– a class of about a dozen students, all different ages and learning needs. I found it weird that I was put in this group and although I got myself out of it a year later, I didn’t get the proper depth for the regular program.
In Grade 9 I failed French and Math. Then in Grade 10, repeating French, I failed it again. It was an extremely difficult class; there were a lot of bright students in that class yet the average grade was maybe 65. Still, I couldn’t understand why my grades were so low. I would show my texts to other students and they couldn’t see what was wrong with them. At that point I started losing hope, though I did still have some pride in my other classes.
Going into Grade 10 I had a lot of anxiety, about my academic path and in general. There was a lot of pressure at school and from my father. I had broken up with my first girlfriend, and hooked up with a different group of people who did a lot of partying. That year I failed a bunch of classes and went to summer school.
In Grade 11 I switched to an alternative school and at first it went well. The semester system they used was better for me: I could do fewer classes at a time for a shorter period. I did well in the first semester. In the second semester, I sort of impulsively moved in with my girlfriend, an hour’s bus ride from the school. She was going through a difficult situation and I felt I had to help her out, so I skipped a lot of classes. I failed that semester.
In the third session (Sept.), the school suddenly adopted a hard-line policy about lateness and absence. I wasn’t able to adapt, and I ended up getting kicked out.
What have you been doing since?
Right after leaving school I was living back at home and working at McDonald’s. It was a sad winter – I was depressed about my life, and only getting a few hours when I really wanted full-time work. But with all that free time, I started developing an interest I’d been dabbling in through high school, which is DJ’ing events. I started doing a lot more gigs and working on my own music.
In April I got a full-time job in a better restaurant, and had enough money to go out and connect with people I wanted to work with in the music industry. It gave me a new perspective, in that a lot of people in music don’t have big academic backgrounds.
What’s going on in your life now?
I’m attending an adult centre to complete my high school. It’s not the standard “here’s a huge textbook; go home and come back when you’re ready to write the exam” kind of program. I attend class, with a teacher, every afternoon. We do one course at a time and complete it in six weeks and this is way better for me. I passed my first English course with flying colours and am almost done my next course. I’m still working part-time and doing some DJ sets, so right now things are going pretty well. I should be ready to graduate around the time of my 19th birthday.
What would have helped make school work for you?
I would have liked clearer criteria: Tell me what, exactly, am I being graded on? And there was so much weight placed on the final exam, but what was on the exam didn’t seem to reflect what we did in class – as if nothing you did in class mattered. So I guess for exams to match the content of the class better.
For me, and I would guess for many kids with ADD or ADHD, a ten-month course can seem excruciatingly long. Fewer courses at a time for shorter periods of time works so much better for me.
I don’t feel I really got any support or accommodation at all with my ADD issues.
Any future goals?
I want to work full time for a while to support the costs of my music, which I plan to continue with, and so I can afford to move into my own place. But longer-term, I’d like to qualify for a trade, and I’ve started looking into various options, like pharmacy assistant or cooking.
I’ve come to a place where I feel my personal goals and talents matter more than my grades. A degree is not the most important thing about a person.
NATALIE GERMAN, Toronto, Ont.
Natalie has returned to an alternative program after taking a year off school. Though she sounds confident and energetic in our interview, this is not how she felt through her teen years. Her story shows how vulnerabilities in mental health and a poor fit with the standard academic program impede school success.
How did you come to leave school before graduating?
School was pretty much OK for me until high school. Then I started really having a hard time showing up, arriving on time, or getting motivated to do my assignments.
I wasn’t skipping school to party or anything. Really I guess it was part of a larger teenage depression. It was more than not wanting to go to school; I often didn’t even want to leave the house. I had really low self-esteem and school was just more than I could deal with.
My mom tried putting me in therapy, and I went to one or two sessions, but I didn’t like them and I stopped going.
Even with all that, I was on track to graduate going into Grade 12, but then I failed that year and didn’t go back.
What have you been doing since?
I took a year off and worked as a fitness instructor for kids. That year helped me in lots of ways. I took on a more adult role and was working with adults. I had to come out of my shell, talk to my co-workers, talk to the kids’ parents. That was good for my self-confidence; I can talk to people now. And it’s a really direct reward system: you show up for work, you get paid. Miss work, you don’t. It makes you grow up.
I enjoyed the job, but it also motivated me to return to school. I realized I don’t want to work at minimum wage forever, you know?
I tried to finish high school doing online courses, but I didn’t succeed. It was way too self-directed for me at that time. I couldn’t even manage to show up for classes, let alone read chapters upon chapters of material and write essays all on my own time.
Looking back, is there anything that could have been different at your school that would have worked better for you?
I did have some teachers who were involved and really cared and who tried to help, but with others, it was like if you fell off the radar they just cut you loose. Like they had other things to worry about. So you just get moved through the system – it’s too institutional.
I also think schools need to be able to approach things differently, for kids like me who learn creatively and are more hands-on. The academic approach – read this, write this essay – doesn’t work for them. There could be more options for students to learn the same concepts in a different way. They don’t even really have vocational schools any more.
What’s going on in your life now?
I started at the Oasis Skateboard Factory in September,1 and just started my second semester. I heard about it from some friends who went, and so far it’s going really well. It’s more arts- and reality-based; less like high school, more like a studio. I think also because of the time I took away from school, I’m ready to take advantage of this.
The environment in this program is more relaxed; we do have assignments and deadlines but we can work at our own pace. And the relationship with our teachers is more personal; it’s like we have one teacher and one boss. I’ve been OK this year, but there are students who are struggling with personal issues and the teachers give them a lot of support.
Any future goals?
I’m actually in the process of applying to university right now. I’ve applied to OCAD, but my number one choice is Ryerson for Interior Design. The only thing I know for certain is that I want to work in an art-related field, but I’m willing to change what that is specifically, depending on how these next few months pan out for me. In the meantime, I’m working towards building an online presence so that I can work as a commission artist.
MORRIS CROW SPREADING WINGS, Lethbridge, Alberta
From a young age, experiences of racism, addiction and personal loss turned schooling into a struggle for Morris Crow Spreading Wings. His story is tough to hear, yet it also speaks to hope and resilience.
How was your early school experience?
I started school on the Blood Reserve, but we moved to Lethbridge (Alta.) after my parents divorced. I was only in Grade 2 when a little girl asked my why I had braids and brown skin, and when I told her I was Aboriginal she said, “Aren’t they the bad people?” That was the start of the racism I encountered throughout my life. Teachers and students would question whether I was a girl because of my braids. I was blamed for fights, accused of stealing when things went missing, and received punishments more severe than those given to White students.
Junior high was not much different, except the racism from other students became more vicious and hurtful. I was routinely called abusive names in front of teachers, with no repercussions. Once a kid lost his saxophone reed in band. I wasn’t sitting anywhere near him at the time and didn’t even play a reed instrument, but he decided that I stole it. The teacher brought me into the office and accused me relentlessly. I was so shocked and upset I couldn’t speak up for myself for fear of breaking out in tears.
When I was 12 my father broke my arm. There was no one I could trust enough to tell, so I said I fell down the stairs. They wouldn’t let me take my pain pills at school, assuming I would likely abuse them.
How about high school?
Soon after this I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and by high school I was pretty deep into the drug culture. I became the stereotypical “bad kid,” I guess.
I had a social studies teacher who would put me on the spot as the only First Nations student, asking things like, “Do you think it’s right that First Nations people get all this stuff for free?” I didn’t know how to respond and the rest of the class fed off that.
When I was 14, my mom kicked me out of her house and moved to Ontario, so I went back to my dad’s. He was terminally ill and I tried to look after him. He died the next year, and then I was on my own. The school was aware of this, but nobody made any attempt to offer me support or make any accommodations.
I felt threatened by my step-brothers, who wanted my father’s property. I got in trouble for sleeping at school, but it was because I stayed awake all night, on guard against them with my father’s loaded rifle.
By Grade 12 I was really only going to school to sell drugs and make money. I was just focused on survival. I quit in my second year of Grade 12.
What happened with your life after you quit school?
I got a job and worked for the same employers for seven years. Through that time I was constantly the butt of racist comments from my bosses, my colleagues and the customers. I believe that led me further into hard drugs and addiction. I made a number of attempts to get clean over the years, but always fell back.
What made you decide to return to school?
It was in the sweat lodge at the Young Offenders’ Centre, in 2011, that I made the decision. A career counselor hooked me up with the Red Crow Community College upgrading program. I took it seriously and excelled, even while I was working full time and still struggling with addiction. In two years I completed my upgrading and got into the University of Lethbridge First Nations Transition Program, in the Health Science stream.
I was successful in the program, but still couldn’t shake the addiction and the codependent relationship I was in that supplied it. Finally in March 2014 I started on a methadone program and got clean. I had a relapse in August but recovered and have been clean since then.
Where do things stand for you now?
I’ve found my goal – to be an addictions counselor – and am in my second semester of the program. In my first semester I had a GPA of 3.4 and this semester I’ve won a TA position.
School is going great. But I am still struggling with many areas of my life. I’m overcoming the challenges though. I have positive feelings about what the future holds for me.
En Bref – Lorsqu’on parle de réduire le taux de décrochage, les voix les plus importantes à écouter sont celles des personnes les plus concernées : les élèves qui quittent l’école prématurément. Trois jeunesâgés de 18 à 25 ans partagent leur expérience scolaire avec Éducation Canada. Tous trois ont décidé de décrocher avant d’obtenir leur diplôme d’études secondaires. Depuis, ils sont tous retournés aux études sous une forme ou une autre, et les programmes spéciaux dont ils ont profité ont été déterminants pour leur réussite scolaire. Quoique leur parcours et leurs enjeux diffèrent, ils ont quelque chose en commun : le programme régulier d’études secondaires n’a pas fonctionné pour eux.
Photo: M. Evans (istock)
First published in Education Canada, May 2015