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Reconnecting Youth to Help them Graduate High School

What would Seattle be like today if people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Paul Allen had not graduated high school? Would people have listened to them and allowed them to build their empires? Would other people of come along and built companies, and technologies equivalent to those they built? Would Seattle get the level of philanthropic support Paul Allen and Bill Gates have given us?

If you have not met someone who has dropped out of high school or do not have kids yourself, it may not occur to you that students not graduating from high school can affect all of us. In reality, it can have an effect on the economy, innovation, philanthropy, the cycle of poverty, the education system and much more.  For quarter 2, YP Impact will be focusing on helping students graduate high school. We spoke with United Ways Community Impact Managers Lisa Brooks and Ruel Olanday, Jr. to discuss what causes students to drop out of high school, what can be done to help those who drop out, obstacles they face, the effect students dropping out has on us all, and much more.

Kara Wenrich: In King County, there are 14,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 with no high school credentials. What are some of the reason’s youth drop out of high school?

Lisa Brooks & Ruel Olanday, Jr.: There are numerous reasons that youth drop out of school including: being bullied at school; experiencing homelessness; taking care of family; unable to afford child care; working to support family; poor view of school; transferring schools due to an unstable home; having a disability and unable to get the necessary support at school; being the only English speaker in their home, etc. The reasons are very circumstantial and sometimes the reasons students drop out is a combination of circumstances.

At-Risk Youth (Photo Credit: United Way)

KB: What programs are available to those who drop out of high school in King County?

LS & RO: Started in 2014, United Way’s Reconnecting Youth is a coordinated, community-wide approach to helping young people get back on track, complete their education and achieve viable career paths. It is composed of a network of more than 20 programs.  Different programs within Reconnecting Youth follow different models and focus on different areas of impact. For instance, some programs focus on getting GED’s, while others focus on getting a diploma, career planning or college preparation. The programs are run by nonprofits, local government or community colleges.

There is also Reconnect to Opportunity, which is the outreach arm that enables students that are disconnected to learn about resources such as mentoring, mental health services, counseling, employment and so forth.

KB: What can be done to help prevent high school students from dropping out?

LS & RO: We believe most of it begins in the schools. There need to be resources for youth at school. For these resources to be present, schools and districts need funding. Teachers need to be trained on how to respond to situations youth are experiencing. Students also need someone to connect to and turn to, whether it be a mentor, teacher, or friend. They need a supportive environment.

Students study (Photo Credit: College of Marin)

KB: What hardships do those who drop out of high school face in coming back to get their GED?

LS & RO: First, we want to acknowledge that those who drop out of school and then make the move to come back and finish their education are very brave. Many of them may not have had a positive experience the first time. It is scary for them going back. They are afraid they will not be supported and will face the same issues they did the first time they went to high school.

Some of the hardships students face when they return to school are transportation, food, raising kids, not being able to afford childcare, taking care of family members and balancing a job. Some students have gone through the justice system.  Many are balancing multiple priorities.

One thing the students returning to school do have working for them is that the programs are more flexible

KB: What hardships do those who drop out of high school tend to face in life?

LS & RO: They do not have the same employment opportunities as those who finish high school or get a college degree. The jobs they are able to get pay less and may not have the opportunities for growth or benefits that those who have graduated get. They also face a lot of stigma in many parts of their lives because of people’s perceptions regarding those who have not graduated high school.

KB: What effect do students dropping out of high school have on the economy?

LS & RO: It is a missed opportunity for economic development. Those who drop out cannot get a job or get lower paying jobs and as a result, don’t add significantly to economic development. When people don’t make as much money then they tend to not spend as much money in retail, restaurants, etc. Those who do not graduate also do not have the opportunity to share their ideas for how they can make a difference. They are not acknowledged as experts and do not have the opportunity to add to innovation. Everyone is affected. More boats rise to the tide, than sink to the bottom of the sea when people invest in education.

Reconnecting Youth for success (Photo Credit: United Way of King County)

KB: Housing instability is on the rise in King County and student homelessness has more than doubled in a decade. What effects do homelessness and housing instability have on academic achievement, graduation and attendance rates?

LS & RO: In Washington, 34% of students experiencing homelessness are proficient in language arts and 24% in math. 62% of students experiencing homelessness attend school regularly and 55% graduate within 4 years. 80% of students who are homeless are people of color.  And graduation rates of those experiencing homelessness are lower than both those not in poverty and those in poverty with housing.

There is work being done to help students experiencing homelessness. The McKinney Vento law was created to provide resources to homeless students in school where the resources don’t match their needs. With this law schools and school districts are asked to identify students that are homeless so that they can help provide the services the students need. For instance, a student living in a shelter may need transportation to school or a student who has participated in sports may need financial assistance to pay for participation in the sports or for uniforms.

KB: What are some of the challenges those who are homeless face that those who are housed do not face while in high school?

LS & RO: We would like to start off by saying that students that are homeless are very resilient and resourceful. Many of these youth are not just living on the streets or in shelters but may also be couch surfing from place to place.

Some of the challenges students that are homeless face are being bullied for what they wear, or not being able to afford things. At a basic level, they may not have access to a table to do their homework and limited access to a computer at a school computer lab or the library.

If they are couch surfing, then they have to use the time they might otherwise use to study to find a place to stay. Many of these students who couch surf also change schools or school districts because they are looking for a place to stay without outstaying their welcome. So, when they start at a new school, they have to develop new friendships, have new teachers, and catch up to where the teachers are in the studies.

YP Impact will be hosting awareness, volunteer and fundraising events with a focus on Helping Students Graduate High School during our quarter 2. Our featured nonprofit of the quarter is Friends of Youth.  Please join us for a film screening of the documentary Night School at our event Journey Back to Graduate: Documentary Screening & Discussion on April 27th at the Ballard Library.


YP Impact is a budding community of young professionals with an interest in giving back to the community we live, work and play in.  If you’re interested in joining the community or just hearing more, visit this page and sign up to follow along.  


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