The Lowdown on Dropping Out

8-18 Media
April 22, 2002

Patrick Smith, superintendent of public schools in Marquette, Michigan, and Tiffany Soeltner, 19, of Marquette have a few things in common: Each of them encourages kids to stay in school and they know the challenges that come with dropping out. They learned firsthand; both left high school before graduation.

Soeltner now feels that no one should drop out of school, no matter how much they dislike it.

"I don't think that it's right to drop out at all because you do regret it a lot," she said.

Soeltner dropped out of school the first time at 16. She had been skipping school a lot and had fallen so far behind in her schoolwork that she felt she couldn't catch up.

"I had the wrong attitude towards school," she said. "I hated school. But you go through the stage of hating it and then you want to like it, and you want to go back."

Over three years, she started school and dropped out a total of three times. At age 18, she hadn't made it past ninth grade.

"I had a lot of friends that were dropping out at the time. But then again, I did want to drop out too," she said. "You can do a lot of things with your time, have a lot of fun while not in school. It feels good, but then the extra time gets kind of boring. At times I would rather be in school."

Why Some Kids Drop Out
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1999 nearly 4 million young people or 11.2 percent of all 16 to 24-year-olds in the United States were not enrolled in high school programs and had not completed high school.

Smith says there are a variety of reasons why kids drop out.

"Some of them I think get bored with it, while some just don't like the routine," he said. "Some don't have support systems either."

Smith, who was born in Michigan, had a very supportive family growing up, but despite that fact, restlessness got the best of him.

"I just lost interest and started missing school. I fell behind and then I left," he said. "It was my decision. My parents weren't happy with it."

In the 1950s at the age of 15 and in his sophomore year, Smith left his family, which was living in Long Beach, California, and hit the road, working at numerous odd jobs around the country.

"I washed a lot of dishes. I worked in a stable. I changed some tires. I pumped gas," he said. "I had all the low-end kind of jobs—which are respectable—I'm not saying they're not. But I worked for the lowest wage I could get."

Eventually, he made his way back to Michigan and moved in with his aunt and uncle who put him to work on their farm.

"I loved it," he said. "In the fall of that year my uncle and I were in the barn milking a cow and he asked me what I was going to do. I thought maybe I'd travel some and then come back and work the farm again in the spring. He suggested that I go to school.

"I saw early on that unless I went back to school I probably wouldn't be successful."

Returning to School
Smith was readmitted to school and started his sophomore year over.

"I had a fairly normal high school experience after being out of it for almost a year, even though I was older than everyone."

Smith attributes much of his success in the next few years to support from his aunt and uncle, his parents and the school's principal who took him under her wing.

After graduation, Smith went to California State University at Long Beach for one year then transferred to Michigan State University. There he received three degrees: his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate. He later got a second master's degree at Western Michigan University.

He said that dropping out of school is an experience most people don't recover from.

"My experience was unique and I would not want anybody to use that as a model to experiment in dropping out. It's not entirely impossible to have a successful life without staying in school, but that doesn't mean drop out because you will struggle."

Life Without a Diploma
A 2000 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that high school dropouts are about three times as likely to slip into poverty from one year to the next as high school graduates.

"It's hard to get a job without a diploma," Soeltner said. "When you fill out an application for a job, that's the first thing that they ask 'Are you in school or did you graduate?' It's definitely hard finding a job, and you're not going to get paid as much."

Statistics compiled in the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2000 Kids Count Data Book back this up. From 1973 to 1999, the average hourly wage (adjusted for inflation) of high school dropouts fell 24 percent.

Smith said that most jobs in the local area now require basic algebra, a subject generally taken in the freshman or sophomore year.

However at age 16, students in Michigan can legally decide to leave school—even if they haven't completed their freshman year. A bill introduced in June by Michigan Senator Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Ann Arbor) would increase the state's legal dropout age to 18. Michigan is among 32 states that allow students to leave at 16.

Even though leaving is legal, it isn't necessarily easy.

"It's hard to drop out of school," Soeltner said. "You have to sign papers to drop out. When you want to return you have to have a meeting and sign more papers to get back in. It's mostly the decision of the principal that lets you in."

Parents: Don't Repeat Our Mistakes
Smith's four children never considered dropping out, but if they had, he wouldn't have given them that option.

"I wouldn't even let them think about it," he said.

Soeltner, who has a 9-month-old daughter, agrees. If her daughter ever considers dropping out, Soeltner says she will see to it that she gets the help she needs to stay in school.

"Maybe counselors if that's necessary, stuff like that," she said.

There is help available. In Michigan, much of that help comes from state funding earmarked for 'at risk' students. In Marquette schools, some of the funding is used for a counselor for those students. Some is used in the Learning Center at the high school and in other programs across the
curriculum, Smith said.

Smith shares his perspective as an administrator and as a parent on keeping kids in school.

"As an administrator, the key for me is to identify the youngsters that appear to be having difficulty very early. If we can get to these youngsters early we can put in place different kinds of programs. We can provide counseling to them. If kids are involved in things—it could be sports, drama, music, their church, a boys' club—if they have some identification with an organization where they take interest and participate, I think that's a way to deter them from going down the dropout route.

"From a parent's point of view, you have to start out having a loving relationship with your children. You have to listen seriously to them. The home environment is critical. There has to be a value placed on education.
The earlier that's done by the parents and the community, the more chances are they won't drop out of school."

Getting Back to Basics
Luckily, things fell into place for Smith.

"There are people who can drop out and things work good," he said. "I was fortunate because I had a loving family. They helped me get back into the system. If I had not been in that environment I probably would have gone back on the road and I can't tell you what I'd be doing or where I'd be today."

Soeltner is getting back on track with her education.

"My goals are to get my GED (General Educational Development certificate) and get a good job," said Soeltner, who is now enrolled in a GED program through Marquette Area Public Schools. GED certificates are accepted for
entrance into the military and 98 percent of colleges and universities in the nation.

"When I was in school I really didn't think about the future," she said. "I didn't think about a job. I didn't think that I ever had to work or know things that they teach you in school. Now I wish I would have learned all
that."


This article was originally published by 8-18 Media. The editors were Gerald Peterson, 14, and Anna Aldrich, 14. Reporters were Sarah Perelmutter, 12, Eric Peterson, 12, and Amy Shirtz, 12.


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I dropped out of school my junior year. I regret that now because I won&;t be able to graduate with my class. But the good news is I have my GED which is equivalent to a high school diploma. Also I&;m in college studying to be a RN (registered nurse) to earn an Associate degree. so I encourage all never to drop out of school because it is hard in this world without that piece of paper on your side.