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Getting America's Dropouts Back On Track


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, millions of eyes will be on Indianapolis this weekend as it hosts the Super Bowl for the first time. We'll check in with the city's mayor to see how the preparations are going for the big game.

But first, we wanted to start the program today by talking about an issue that is challenging the country, the number of young people who drop out of high school without obtaining a degree. According to the Department of Education, one in every four students who starts a public high school fails to graduate on time or at all, and individual states have a wide range of success. With Wisconsin graduating nine out of ten students, while Nevada manages to graduate just under six in ten or 56 percent.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama offered one solution to address this issue. Here it is.


MARTIN: But would changing the law make a difference and how are educators getting a grasp on this issue? We wanted to take a closer look at just why students do drop out of high school and what can be done to keep them on the path to graduation. So today, we're going to focus on Washington, D.C., which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country.

Joining us to tell us more is Kavitha Cardoza. She is a reporter at NPR member station WAMU, and she's been covering D.C.'s drop-out crisis for its American Graduate series. Welcome back, thanks so much for joining us once again.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Rashida Harris. She is one of the students being featured in the WAMU series. Rashida Harris dropped out of school three years ago. She has since returned to a new high school. And she's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio also. Welcome to you, thank you for coming.


MARTIN: So, Kavitha, let's start by talking about the numbers. Only 62 percent of students in Washington, D.C. are actually graduating on time, according to the federal statistics. But D.C. has a very different number on this.

CARDOZA: D.C. says it's closer to 76 percent.

MARTIN: So, I wanted to ask is there a big difference in how this rate is measured and does that matter.

CARDOZA: It does. D.C. has been using a method that researchers call generous. And the new method, which states are required to follow now, will track every single student. So, if a student transfers out, now D.C. will be required to have paperwork and not just say, oh, that student dropped out. I think it does make a difference, Michel, because often what is encountered doesn't end up on paper. If it doesn't end up on paper, then it's as if the problem doesn't even exist. These children are sometimes called America's forgotten children.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit, if you would, and obviously we're going to here from Rashida on this. But what are some of the reasons cited for why kids drop out and why in D.C. is the graduation rate as low as it is?

CARDOZA: A lot of time it's factors that are common across the country. There's - poverty is a big risk factor and everything that comes along with it. So, I don't have lights, I didn't have an alarm to wake me up. I'm homeless, learning disabilities. A lot of times young people say they dropped out because they don't see a connection between what they're learning and what they want to be in life. Very often it's there's not a single adult in their life who cares enough to keep them in school. It's violence, crime, drugs, all those factors play a part.

MARTIN: Well, let's dig into some of this. Rashida, why don't you tell us, if you wouldn't mind, why you dropped out of school? Was it a sudden decision? Was it kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing or was it something that had been building for a while?

HARRIS: Well, school wasn't really that much important to me. I used to live at with my aunt and my brothers and sisters, we had to take care of ourselves. So, we would go to school probably two or three times a week just to be in school and walk the halls and stuff or we would go up to the school if it was a problem for us getting in fights and stuff like that. But school wasn't really that much important to me. The streets was at the time.

MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask, where's your mom in all this?

HARRIS: My mother's been dead since '96.

MARTIN: So, you lost her really early, I'm sorry.


MARTIN: I'm sorry about that. And so, your aunt was taking care of you or you were living with her. She was the adult, but she didn't insist that you go?

HARRIS: Well, at the time back then I was with my aunt in the court systems and both my godmother. When I was with my aunt, she didn't really care if we went to school or not as long as we're out of her house by at least 8:30, she don't care where we was at.

MARTIN: And what about the other things that Kavitha talked about? You didn't see the connection, you didn't see why it mattered?

HARRIS: Sometimes, but I don't know.

MARTIN: If you just joined us we're speaking with Rashida Harris. She dropped out of high school here in Washington, D.C. three years ago. She's now back in school. Also with us is Kavitha Cardoza. She reports on education for Washington's WAMU, and she's doing a series on why students drop out and what it would take to get them back in school.

What about the teachers, though? I mean, aren't the teachers in the school saying, where are you? Why aren't you here?

CARDOZA: A lot of times, teachers are really overwhelmed because sometimes, you know, some of the students I've spoken to, they're like in the 11th, 12th grade, Michel, and they're reading and writing at the 2nd grade level. So, you can imagine the amount of just academically the pressure on teachers to just bring them up to maybe even the 7th grade level.

A lot of times, these children also have so much going on in their lives. They either check out, so they're distracted. They put their heads down and go to sleep. Or sometimes, as in I'm sure Rashida won't mind me saying, they start arguing with the teacher. So, often when they're out of class, the teachers feel, oh, we can concentrate on the students who are here who really want to learn.

MARTIN: Is that true, Rashida? Did you do that? Did you get into beefs with the teachers? I see there's a little hint of a smile there.


HARRIS: Somewhat.

MARTIN: Because?

HARRIS: It was just my attitude back then. I didn't care. I felt as though nobody else cared about me. So, why should I have to show you respect if you don't show me respect?

MARTIN: What did you interpret as respect?

HARRIS: Obviously respect is treat someone like you want to be treated. So, if you come at me nasty, I'm going to come right back at you nasty.

MARTIN: I have to ask another question, if you don't mind my asking, is what about the safety environment? I've also heard that sometimes kids don't go to school because they are afraid to be there. And I know that's hard thing to admit, but they just don't feel safe in school, so they look for reasons not to go, maybe not you?

HARRIS: It happened to people I know, but every school that I went to I was always known as one of the Harris families or by my hood.

MARTIN: So, you felt a zone of protection for yourself, so that wasn't your issue. But tell me about this idea of keeping kids in school until they're 18. And in Washington, D.C. that is in fact, is the requirement that students are in fact required to stay in school until they're 18. That's a - as we heard, that's a requirement that President Obama would like to make nationwide. Does that seem to make any difference?

CARDOZA: I don't know what it would have been like if you had told children, you know, because that is the requirement now. So, I don't know what it would have been like if you had told children, oh, at 16 you could leave. One of the things is I think it's good because we kind of set an expectation that at until 18 that is your job. If you do it or not - like if you fall short, that's one thing. But at least, as a society, this is what we expect from you.

But sometimes, I mean, it's going to be challenging. There's a lot of money going to be involved if these students come back. We're going to have to rethink how we educate these students. Some of them, you know, don't want to be sitting at their grade level. Often teachers are going to have to deal with students who don't want to be there and that's going to be challenging. Getting parents - this idea that now parents are not in charge, the federal government or the government is kind of telling you what to do. Those are all things that are going to play into it.

MARTIN: So, Rashida, we heard that you left but then you came back. What made you come back?

HARRIS: What made me come back, because I've realized how much it's very important to receive an education. And nowadays, a high school diploma can't really get you no good job. So, and I start doing GED programs on and off, but I never succeeded to it. One side of me said I want to do it. The other side of me said I didn't. Until I ended up having my daughter, that's what really opened it up and made me realize I really want to go back to school. I wanted a high school diploma. I really don't want no GED no more. I want a high school diploma.

MARTIN: So you wanted to do it for her and you also wanted to be, I guess, an example to her. Is that right?


MARTIN: How old is she now?

HARRIS: She'll be eight months on Friday.

MARTIN: Oh, Happy Birthday to her. Congratulations. And how old are you, if you don't mind my asking?

HARRIS: I'm 19.

MARTIN: You're 19 now. What about this idea of saying you have to stay in school till you're 18? Would that have made a difference?

HARRIS: No. Because - well, back then they told us, once you turn 16, we really don't have too much to do with you. Three, four suspensions, maximum 25 or 45, you're kicked out of high school, so they didn't really care about us at the time.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you. I'm excited for you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: I'm excited for you. Kavitha, if I could have a final thought from you, what are some of the strategies that seem to be working in Washington, D.C. or in the rest of the country to help students like Rashida get back into school and stay in school until they achieve their goal?

CARDOZA: Yes, they are. Rashida is going to a smaller high school. She's got a lot of adults who pay personal attention to her. There are some charter schools in D.C. that are actually - and traditional schools that have career and technical training, so students part of the day have academics. Part of the day they learn a trade, like construction or something like that, hospitality.

They have staggered timing so that students can work late and they can study late. They work during the day. Often, there are phone calls and text messages and home visits to say come to school, re-enroll. Teachers and principals are knocking on doors, so there are a lot of people trying to give these students who have already dropped out a second chance.

MARTIN: Rashida, I should have asked you this. What do you want to do when you finish school? I know you say you're realizing now that high school is just part of it. What's next for you? What do you want to do after that so we can keep a good thought for you?

HARRIS: Well, my plan was to go to Delaware State or Morgan State and study criminal justice to become a homicide detective.

MARTIN: A homicide detective. Well, tell me why.

HARRIS: Because it's too many people out here that I know that got killed and their cases haven't been solved, and most (unintelligible) detective, after four or five years, just sweep the foul to the side.

MARTIN: So you want to change that.


MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, we're going to keep a good thought for you. Stay in touch. Let us know how you're doing. Okay.

Kavitha Cardoza is a senior reporter at member station WAMU. She covers education. Rashida Harris is a student at Luke Seymour Academy High School in Washington, D.C. They were both here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for coming.

CARDOZA: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Good luck.

HARRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Tune in tomorrow when we'll continue our conversation on the dropout crisis by talking to a Nevada principal who spends her Saturdays trying to bring dropout students back to school. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.