At the Crossroads of Risk and Resiliency: Averting High School Dropouts

Dec 8, 2014, 12:35 PM, Posted by Karen Johnson

Karen Johnson, PhD, RN, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. Her research focuses on vulnerable youth. The first RWJF Scholars Forum: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health was held last week. The conversation continues here on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

Scholars Forum 2014 Logo: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health.

As Americans, we love stories about people who beat the odds and achieve success. We flock to movie theaters to watch inspiring tales—many times based on true stories—of resilient young people who have overcome unthinkable adversities (e.g., abuse, growing up in impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods) to grow into healthy and happy adults. Antwone Fisher, The Blind Side, Precious, and Lean On Me are just a few of my personal favorites that highlight the very real struggles faced by adolescents like those I have worked with as a public health nurse. My work with adolescent mothers and now as an adolescent health researcher has convinced me of the critical importance of focusing on promoting health and resilience among adolescents at-risk for school dropout.

How often do we as a society really sit down outside the movie theater or walls of academia and talk about why these young people are at risk for poor health and social outcomes in the first place, or what it would take to help them rise above adversity? If we look closely at the storylines of resilient youth, we will notice a number of similarities. Being resilient does not happen by chance: it takes personal resolve from the individual—something our American culture has long celebrated. And it takes a collective commitment from society to maintain conditions that empower young people to be resilient, and that is something that we as a society do not recognize or invest in nearly as often.  

Decades of research highlight the critical importance of social connectedness—to family, pro-social peers, school, and community—in protecting adolescents from the negative health and social outcomes that one might think are inevitable for youth growing up in adversity. Yet the very social institutions that foster connectedness have deteriorated over time in America, which has resulted in disconnected youth and disparities in mental health and health-risk behaviors such as substance use, sexual risk-taking, and involvement in violence.

The education system is one of the most crucial institutions for preparing adolescents to lead healthy and productive lives. Yet schools are too often underfunded and expected to do more with less. High school graduates experience better health, are more civically engaged, less involved in criminal behavior, and contribute more in taxable income than those who drop out of school. Yet our nation has faced a dropout crisis for decades. In 2013, 20 percent of high school students did not graduate with their cohort. African American and Hispanic youth and those living in poverty are less likely to graduate and more likely to attend underperforming schools where graduating is not the norm.

When traditional school environments are not able to meet the needs of students facing adversities outside of the classroom, alternative education programs—with their smaller class sizes and flexible learning schedules— often step in to prevent students from dropping out. Alternative schools serve a growing population of 650,000 students nationwide. Many see alternative schools as a “dumping ground” for disruptive students who violate zero tolerance policies. Indeed, students in alternative schools are a marginalized population who are disproportionally low-income and youth of color and are often stigmatized as “problems,”  “failures,” or “damaged” youth who should be isolated.  

Such rhetoric and such perceptions, which focus solely on individual responsibility, do not paint a full picture of the challenges faced by this population. As I tell my public health nursing students, individuals make choices within a context. Many students in alternative schools have faced adversities that would understandably impact their behavior and ability to succeed in school: abuse, homelessness, family battling addictions, and residing in impoverished and unsafe neighborhoods. In my work with alternative schools, I see phenomenal dedication and compassion from teachers and administrators— even in the face of scarce funding and resources. They understand the struggles faced by their students and nurture the potential in each student.

As a society, we need to match this dedication and compassion for these marginalized young people, who are at the crossroads of risk and resiliency. These students may be at-risk for school dropout, but they have not dropped out yet. We must invest in them, not toss them away.   

We can, and must, do better by our young people. Why should any adolescent in America be at risk for school dropout in the first place? When it comes to promoting the health and educational success of adolescents, we are truly all in this together. Schools, families, communities, public health, and policymakers must collaborate to ensure all adolescents grow into adulthood immersed in supportive environments that fully engage them in their education and promote healthy choices.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.