Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dropping Out: A Students Perspective

The following blog is an installment in the DCAYA “School Climate” series. We asked experts, community members, and youth to write about the variables affecting school climate. Guest blogger Precious, a DC public school graduate writes about her high school experience and the struggles she faced to make it to gradation day.

Growing up I was raised by my mother, a single parent, and she tried her best to support me, my brother, and my cousin. In my house attending school was expected, but to me it wasn't mandatory because my mother worked from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the same hours as school. High school was the hardest for me because I had to get up early and catch two to three buses just to get to school. In my 9th grade year it seemed like every student in Spingarn Senior High school was in the hallways smoking, fighting, and just skipping class. I was a part of the skipping class club because all my friends were in the hallways hanging out. I never liked going to class because the teachers were boring and the classes were empty. So instead, I tagged along with my friends.

The principal didn't really care, she allowed the students to do whatever they wanted. Students jumped other students and went inside teachers’ classrooms and stole laptops and the principal did not suspend them. Violence between gangs took place and a gun was shot in the hallways of my school. At that point my best friend Jessica and I stopped attending school all together. We would go over to our friend’s house and just hang out and watch television. We did not care about getting an education because at that time our social lives were more important. Four months went by and we were still doing the same thing everyday.

One day, the school called Jessica's mother to let her know we were tardy and we told her we had been going to school. Jessica's mother believed us and the next day we decided we had better return to school. The first day back I asked all my teachers if I was failing. In 50% of my classes I received an “F” and the other 50% I received a “D.” At that point I was afraid of failing because I had not been to school and I was pretty sure that I was not going to be able to raise my grades by passing finals. I did not learn my lesson and started skipping class again. A month passed and I found out that Jessica and I had to attend summer school.

I was angry, not because I had to go to summer school, but because I had to spend my entire summer doing work that I could have done during the school year. The most frustrating part was that one of the classes I had to take in summer school was music. “Who goes to summer school for music?” was all I could think. I should have taken my classes more seriously. At that moment, I told myself that I would do whatever had to be done to pass summer school.

Three weeks went by and Jessica was kicked out of summer school for missing too many days. I was so scared because all I had was Jessica, we were like two peas in a pod. After a day of thinking, I decided that this is my future and if I wanted to pass the 9th grade then I had to finish summer school. I passed summer school and started my 10th grade year.

I realized I had to change who I was to succeed in life. I had to leave the old 9th grade Precious behind and make a fresh start. That's what I did, I started passing all my classes and going to school everyday. Education was the key to my success and I wanted to go to college.

I looked up to my cousin, Rashad, who graduated from high school and attended college. I felt that if he could graduate, then maybe I could too because we both came from the same background. Things were different for Jessica, she decided to drop out of school. She claimed the school was too far, the teachers did not know how to teach and she was above everybody else in the classroom so she never learned anything new. I told Jessica that was no reason for her to drop out but instead she stayed home and slept all day. Unlike Jessica, I had to go to school because that was the only way that I could apply for college and dropping out was not an option.

After working hard for two years, I made it to my senior year. I was nervous and excited. During my senior year I was given the opportunity to become an intern with Urban Alliance. Urban Alliance placed me at the lovely Sitar Arts Center where students and family can come to a comfortable and safe place to share their creativity. I worked at Sitar and took two classes in digital arts and photography. For me to keep my internship with Urban Alliance I had to maintain a grade point average of 2.0 and graduate from high school. I wanted to keep my internship at Sitar so I worked hard.

At Sitar, I was given the opportunity to take a Film Documentary class every Thursday. I really wanted to take this class because I was interested in movies, documentaries and cameras. In the documentary class, I had an idea to make a film about high school drop outs. I wanted to explore this idea because my two best friends dropped out of high school and it really made me sad to see them give up on education. I wanted to tell a story that even though students drop out of high school it does not mean they do not care about school. It means they just need a little extra help getting back on the right track.

Click HERE to watch the Trailer of "Doing it for Me"

Shooting the documentary showed me that I made the right choice to continue on going to summer school and staying in high school. I wish my best friend had graduated with me, but things change and you learn from them. If I could go back in time I would have stopped skipping class. I would have called Jessica every morning so she could wake up in time for summer school. I would have helped Jessica with anything she needed help with in high school. If I could have just done a little more, then on June 13, 2013 my best friend and I would have both walked across the Spingarn Senior High School stage and graduated with honors. My advice for students having a rough school year is to stay focused, be determined and never give up on your dreams, because at the end of the day it's up to you to make them happen.

Precious is a Sitar Arts intern and is currently working on a documentary about the school drop out crisis in D.C.. She will be attending Edward Waters College in Florida this fall.  

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Student Engagement is Key to School Climate

The following blog is an installment in the DCAYA “School Climate” series where we asked experts, community members, and youth to write about variables affecting school climate. Guest blogger Chris Brown is the Executive Director of BUILD and writes about the need to engage students beyond the classroom.  

According to the latest U.S. Department of Education data, Washington DC has the lowest high school graduation rate in the country: only 59% of DC students graduate high school within four years. This is compared to a 79% national average. What's more, the National Center for Education Statistics has shown that only about 50% of DC high school graduates enroll in college, compared to the national average of 62%. This means that only a quarter of people in our Nation's Capital receive a college education which will have detrimental effects on their lifelong earning potential .

For many students, dropping out is the final step in a student’s disengagement from a school community. Often times this is a symptom of schools and their partners not providing engaging and relevant programming or curriculum. It’s no secret that DC schools are overwhelmed and under-resourced so we shouldn't let our teachers and administrators carry the entire burden of helping our students overcome the odds. We have to invest in support networks and extended day learning programs that complement classroom instruction to keep students engaged in their education. We have to expose our students to diverse ways of learning, to keep them invested in building their own futures.

Many of BUILD’s students prove this point, however there is one student in particular whose journey through high school highlights why engaging in meaningful academic experiences can help students in the District overcome the incredible odds stacked up against them.

Several years ago I met a young woman named Natalee whom many described as hot-tempered, angry, and disengaged. Natalee came to BUILD as a ninth grader in a DC public high school. Natalee flourished at BUILD and even became the CEO of her business team "We Go Friendly ," manufacturing reusable and customizable shopping bags. Despite this success, Natalee struggled to keep her cool behaviorally and focus academically, which ultimately led to her expulsion from school. Fortunately, BUILD’s model is a holistic one and we did not give up on Natalee so easily. Our model targets rising 9th graders and serves them through their 12th grade year. We utilize effective strategies like mentoring for disengaged and disadvantaged youth, particularly those in the 9th grade year, as over half of the young people who drop out do so in the 9th grade.

Because of Natalee's 4 years in the BUILD program she did not just become another DC dropout. She was able to re-enroll in school, raise her GPA and eventually become valedictorian of her graduating class. I'm proud to report that our former CEO is now a rising junior, with a scholarship, at Drew University and a true testament to the amazing outcomes that can be achieved when young people are fully supported both in school and out.

Natalee with Executive Director Chris Brown and CEO of Square and Founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey

As she noted recently, "I am grateful for the many lessons that I have learned at BUILD. More importantly, I am thankful for all the support I have received over 4 years. The interactions that I've had with BUILD staff members and mentors have been invaluable. BUILD has been there for many important moments of my life and held my hand through many tough times. As happy as I was to leave DC for college, a part of me was nervous and sad. I just couldn't picture life without BUILD. But - I really never left. Every time I come home from school I find my way back to the Incubator and I'm welcomed by those same welcoming smiles."

Chris Brown is the Executive Director at BUILD Metro DC. BUILD's mission is to use entrepreneurship to excite and propel disengaged, low-income students through high school to college success. In school year 2012-2013, 100% of BUILD seniors - our second graduating cohort - were accepted to at least one college or university.

Watch video from the BUILD Gala HERE. 

To read more about youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW DCAYA on Twitter,LIKE us on Facebook and VISIT us at

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Engaging Students With Disabilities in their Education

The following blog is an installment in the DCAYA“School Climate” series where we asked experts, community members, and youth to write about the variables affecting school climate. Guest blogger Juanita Huff from School Talk, Inc. writes about the need to engage disabled students in school because they are most at-risk for dropping out. 

Students with disabilities[1] are faced with many challenges throughout their education, including becoming disengaged and dropping out of school. In June of 2002, the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) cited that the dropout rate for students with disabilities was approximately twice that of general education students. The problem persists, as evidenced in a NCES compendium report which specifies a 2008-2009 national status dropout rate of 15.5 percent for students with disabilities and 7.8 percent for students without disabilities, ages 16 through 24. The report links this trend of non-completion to lower earnings, higher rates of unemployment, poverty and illness later in life.

What leads so many students with disabilities to abandon their education? A publication of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) “Dropping Out and Disabilities” offers the following explanation for the higher dropout rates observed among students with disabilities

“Although they are often held to the same standard as the general population, students with disabilities must overcome serious obstacles that can interfere with their education. To graduate from high school, students with disabilities may need to work harder, study longer, or possess greater academic ability than their peers without a corresponding physical, emotional, or learning handicap. The added work and frustration associated with a disability can take its toll over time[…]”

As parents, educators, and school officials continue to collectively explore ways to ensure special needs students’ success, it is important to remember that the students themselves are valuable sources of information and insight. Students who are given meaningful opportunities to participate in their education typically display higher levels of motivation, more positive attitudes, and better behavior. Promoting students’ involvement in their education can support them in (1) creating their own academic success, (2) contributing to a caring and supportive environment, (3) clearly identifying with the connection between their education and future goals, and (4) addressing their own social challenges; which have been identified as “four broad intervention components that are important to enhancing student motivation to stay in school and work hard (McPartland, 1994).” (Cited in “Students with Disabilities who Drop Out of School – Implications for Policy and Practice”)

Students who receive special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is individualized for each student and is created by a team of teachers, parents, school administrators, students, and related services personnel. Providing students with the ability to actively participate in their IEP meetings allows them to express their individual needs, goals, ideas, and interests. In an article published in TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, author Becky Wilson Hawbaker maintains that meetings led by students promote greater parental involvement, undermine stereotypical assumptions concerning intellect, build students’ confidence and determination, and prepare students for transition to adulthood. Students are more likely to remain engaged when they are actively involved, reducing the risk of dropping out. Programs, such as I’m Determined in Virginia, have developed innovative practices for involving students from elementary to high school, and spanning all disability categories.

Support for improving students’ participation in their IEPs is gaining momentum in DC. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the DC Secondary Transition Community of Practice (members from OSSE, DCPS, charter schools, non-publics, community organizations, government agencies, etc.) are supporting a Student-led IEP Demonstration Project. The project team is working with selected District schools to support and document their efforts to increase the involvement of DC youth with disabilities in decision making about their education. For more information, contact Leila Peterson (Executive Director, SchoolTalk, Inc.) at


[1][1] The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P. L. 101-476), defines a "child with a disability" as a child: "with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services." An important component of IDEA is Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE), which requires school districts to provide access to general education and specialized educational services for children with disabilities. It requires that children with disabilities receive support free of charge as is provided to non-disabled students. 

Juanita Huff is a recent graduate of George Mason University and currently works as a Transition Specialist at SchoolTalk, Inc. ( Born with a mix of moderate hemiplegic and spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, Huff is familiar with the challenges that many students with disabilities face. She is passionately committed to improving the ability of youth with disabilities to succeed in education, employment, and independence.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pushing Students Out of School and Into the Streets

The following blog is an installment in the DCAYA “School Climate” series where we asked experts, community members, and youth to write about variables affecting school climate. Guest blogger Alex Peerman from DC Lawyers for Youth discusses the correlation between suspension rates and the number of high school drop outs.

The negative effects of dropping out of high school are firmly established: higher unemployment, lower wages, and greater likelihood of incarceration, to name a few. Consequently, discussions on high school dropout rates frequently focus on how we can re-engage at-risk students and encourage them to stay in school. But simultaneously, many schools employ practices that actively push out their students, namely suspension and expulsion.

Disciplinary push-out is a larger contributor to high school dropout rates than most realize. A new report from the Every Student Every Day Coalition shows that during school year 2011-12, DC schools imposed over 18,720 suspensions, and over 13% of students were suspended at least once. Perhaps more shockingly, these suspensions are not limited to older students; the highest-suspending elementary schools suspended approximately 25% of their students. From very early ages, students are labeled as “behavior problems” and put on the track to high school dropout.

The effect of each one of these suspensions is significant. As a result of being excluded from school, many suspended students remain unsupervised during the day. Instead of keeping up with their schoolwork, suspended students end up watching TV or playing video games at home. Instead of building relationships with teachers and school-engaged peers, they become more likely to build relationships with dropouts and other suspended students. They return to class further behind, less invested in school, and less ready to learn. Quantitative research demonstrates the effects of this missed classroom time. The largest study on the effects of school exclusion showed that suspended students are far more likely to be held back or fail to graduate than their peers. At the school level, higher rates of suspension have been found related to lower graduation rates.

These trends seem to hold in the data available for DC. As the figure below shows, schools with higher suspension rates tend to have lower graduation rates. Of course, some of this relationship likely reflects other factors, like students’ poverty and the school’s instructional quality; a more in-depth analysis could attempt to control for these confounding variables. However, previous research has found negative student-level effects of suspension even when controlling for dozens of these possible alternative explanations. Based on the strength of those findings, this first look at the DC data also likely indicates genuine negative effects of suspension on students’ likelihood of graduation.

On reflection, it seems like common sense that there is a relationship between being excluded from the classroom and dropping out of school. Getting suspended inherently sends a message from school to student: “We don’t want you here.” Unfortunately, many students receive this message loud and clear, and eventually choose to drop out.

It is remarkably self-defeating to maintain practices that actively push kids out of school, while at the same time seeking methods to keep them from dropping out. Thankfully, there are alternatives to exclusionary school discipline, alternatives that can support rather than undermine our goal of having every student in school through graduation. The leading evidence-based practice is Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which focuses on introducing, modeling, and reinforcing good behavior rather than merely punishing bad behavior. Restorative justice is another promising practice, one intended to engage all key stakeholders, hold the offender accountable, repair the harm done to the victim, and facilitate the offender’s reintegration into the community.

Exclusionary school discipline is an important contributor to high dropout rates. If the District wants to maximize its graduation rates, decreasing suspensions and replacing them with alternatives keeping students engaged in school would be a good place to start.

Alex Peerman is the Policy & Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth. Alex is one of the authors of "District Discipline: The Overuse of Suspension and Expulsions in the District of Columbia," (PDF) a recent report published by the Every Student Every Day Coalition.

Monday, July 08, 2013

It's Time for Another Blog Series!

Last week’s community convening with members of the Anti-Bullying Task Force and the DC Office of Human Rights really got us thinking about some important issues that bullying contributes to and BOOM! an idea for a new blog series was born. So, without further adieu we introduce you to our latest blog series on ... SCHOOL CLIMATE!

The American Psychological Association defines school climate as:

"the overall quality and character of school life, including teaching and learning practices, organizational structures, norms and values, and relationships"

Pretty simply put, school climate includes everything that happens in a school, but it's important to recognize school climate IS more than just the sum of its parts. School climate is really all about how the component parts of a school work together to achieve something greater.

As any youth development advocate will tell you this is an extremely important feature of any school or program. This is because everything, even programming options for children and youth, has at least some good component parts. However, these parts don't always combine in a way that we achieve an intended outcome. For instance, sometimes good elements of programming don't outweigh bad ones (having really great curriculum won't necessarily help if good staff aren't in place to utilize it), or good elements just fail to achieve synergy with other good elements of programming and they mute or negate one another. These occurrences shouldn't be especially shocking. Even as individuals, how often do we decide we don't like a bar or restaurant because it has a weird vibe or know we dislike a new person we meet but can't quite put our finger on why? These all have to do with the effect that occurs when various parts come together to form a whole, but sometimes the whole ain't so great.

There is a vast and ever growing body of research on the effect of school climate and negative outcomes for young people and its for that reason that we are dedicating an entire blog series to this subject. Furthermore, we're always excited to highlight and feature the exciting work of the DCAYA membership so expect plenty of guest blogs in the upcoming month about all the different facets of this exciting, but often hard to grasp concept.

We'll be kicking off the series with a guest blog from our friends from DC Lawyers for Youth so stay tuned for some more great information on school climate later this week!

Anne Abbott is a Policy Analyst at DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and is currently writing a report on disconnected youth in the District. 

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If you have an interest in guest blogging or contributing to a future blog series or post please contact DCAYA's Communications Associate, Angela Massino.