Clifton Faris-Harling and Travis Milleson, two Woodland students, were on the cusp of being high school drop-outs.
At their respective high schools, they felt the curriculum was boring and the way it was taught was too fast-paced. Most of their teachers didn’t seem interested enough in their educational success when they received low test scores or earned bad grades. Ultimately, walking away from high school seemed like a viable option, and one they both easily decided to take.
“I used to be a C, D, F student. I have never been really good at school. I never had the motivation to do the work, even though I did try my best,” said Milleson.
Faris-Harling didn’t feel he had the support or encouragement from his teachers to do well in school— or at least enough to get by.
“I didn’t see anyone trying to set good examples for me or the other students. I just felt out of place, like I didn’t belong,” said Faris-Harling.
Because of their experiences, both dropped out of high school, and later sought refuge at a place they found the encouragement, motivation and stimulation to continue pressing forward with their educational endeavors.
“We are both students at César Chávez Community School and we really like it there. There are supportive teachers who care about the students and we are able to go at our own pace,” said Milleson.
Both students shared pieces of their personal educational trajectory on a panel discussion following the Yolo County Education and Equity Summit Series presentation titled, ‘The Cost of High School Dropouts to Yolo County’ presented by Dr. Gloria Rodríguez.
Dr. Rodríguez is an Associate Professor and Director of the CANDEL (EdD) Program at the University of California, Davis where her research is focused on the notions of educational investments that reflect efforts to build upon community strengths in order to address community needs within and beyond educational settings.
Rodríguez also engages in research and campus activities that focus on the educational conditions and trajectories of Chicana/o-Latina/o communities, other communities of color, and low-income populations in the United States.
Part of her research in education has been to look at the number of dropouts in Yolo County and their impact to school districts, their families and the community at large. According to her research, dropouts are not just numbers.
“It is very important to humanize the numbers of dropouts. Sometimes in the topics of education, we have become too accustomed to dehumanizing issues and people. Those who dropout are not just statistics or a number, they are very real people,” said Rodríguez.
Because high school dropouts are usually relegated to a number, Rodríguez believes it is fundamentally important to ask questions about the students who dropout before any formulations or assumptions are made over the reasons for their dropping out.
“We need to ask a lot of questions before we create a holistic image of these students. Was school not a safe place for them? Were they being bullied? Did they have trouble making friends? Was the school curriculum too boring?”
“What is the real reason that pushed this student to the edge and made him/her decide that dropping out was an easier and viable option? That’s where the focus should be. These questions should have answers and those answers should provide us with solutions,” said Rodríguez.
Based on a study conducted from 2006-2007, there were 373 high school dropouts in Yolo County, or students without a high school degree. As a result, the impact in numbers was significant.
A person earning a high school degree compared to a person who does not have one represents $8.9 million in average annual earnings; and $108.1 million in average lifetime earnings. The cost of dropouts to the community includes $63 million in federal, state and local tax dollars.
“There is also an increase in crime, public assistance services and tax exemptions. But that is not to assume that all people who drop out of high school are involved in criminal activities or ask for public assistance. These are misconceptions,” said Rodríguez.
As a self-identified Latina, Chicana, woman of color, academic and professor, Rodríguez believes most students who drop out of high school, do it for a strong reason.
“If a students does not feel that school is a safe place or a place of joy and happiness and interest; what do they tell people who are in abusive relationships? To walk away. Many students who feel they have a “good reason” to walk away, do so,” said Rodríguez.
When the numbers of high school dropouts are broken up by race and ethnicity, the numbers are staggering for Latinos.
For every Latino that attends a high school, not just in Yolo County, but across the state, about half or 54% graduate from high school; only 11% graduate from college and only 4% pursue a graduate or advanced degree. Only .03 % graduate with a Ph.D.
The personal costs of choosing to dropout of high school could be detrimental to a student throughout their lifetime.
“There is a $24,000 difference in loss earned annual income for a person who did not graduate from high school, not to mention the limited employment opportunities available to those without a high school degree,” said Rodríguez.
With young Latinos making up a large majority of the state, the numbers could grow if more dropouts ensue.
“We have the case of Latinos becoming a large denominator, but not the numerator when it comes to getting an education and that represents a problem to all school districts in the state, not just here in Yolo County,” said Rodríguez.
There are many misconceptions and common phrases that are used to describe students who dropout of high school, said Rodríguez, and they often discourage students if/when they decide to return to school. Terms like “they don’t fit the norm of success” or “it costs more to educate them” and “we keep throwing money at the problem” and “your loss is my gain” are all a disservice to students.
“We need to think in terms of investment when we are faced with a large number of students who are dropping out,” said Rodríguez.
Some of the more positive terms that could help students include, “my success is tied to your success” and “the resources of today will produce returns over the short and long term.”
Maggie Campbell who works for the Yolo County Innovation Board was a high school dropout. She didn’t realize the impact of the decision until years later.
“I was an adopted child and I come from a small community. I was a labor organizer for 20 years and worked in social services and was on welfare and a high school dropout. Not a day goes by that I regret not getting my high school diploma,” said Campbell. Today, she tells students and adults, that its not too late to get a high school diploma.
“I know for a fact that I’ve had to work twice as hard for everything I have and for coming as far as I have in my career because I don’t have a high school diploma,” said Campbell.
Guests and panel members closed the presentation by offering solutions to the dropout problem that persists, not just in Yolo County but across many school districts in the state.
Many suggested schools begin to look at career options during their elementary school years so they can expand their options and feel motivated toward achieving their goals and fulfilling their dreams. Others spoke of the importance of having a school curriculum that reflects the students in the classroom and the importance of having ethnic studies incorporated into all school curriculums.
Dr. Cireñio Rodríguez, a Woodland School District Board of Trustee, came to the United States at the age of 14 from México without knowing a single word in English. He was placed in special education courses, then ELL. When he started to get better grades (instead of just failing), many of his friends accused him of being “too white.” It was a life-changing moment for Rodríguez.
“I realized there are institutionalized low expectations for many Latino students that are perpetuated among students and educators alike throughout the entire system and we need to fight against those mechanisms so that all students have equal access to a quality education,” said Rodríguez.