How many students may I leave behind?

So how many dropouts does it take to deem a school a failure? Really. I get the NCLB requirements and the close focus New York State has on graduation rate. I pay close attention to our data, but more important, to our students. We all spend a great deal of our time and energy keeping kids in school. Why? Because it’s the reason we’re here and it’s important that every child has at least a high school diploma. I know with certainty that every student who leaves G-Town with a diploma is stronger and more capable in the world and for the children that they in turn will raise. I know all this and still, I wonder, how many dropouts are acceptable?

The school year signals a beginning, another fresh start, new school supplies. It’s a chance to make new friends and spend time with old friends, a chance to make a good impression, improve a GPA, attend school more often, learn new subjects and meet new teachers. We spend most of July and August planning for the return of our teachers and students and hoping that this year will be even better than the last.

But September also brings back those students who weren’t successful last year, or the year before, or the year before that one. Students who aren’t here to learn anything, they’re here because probation told them they have to be, or because they can’t or won’t get a job and the parent says you have to do something, or because they see this as a place to socialize, or as their “marketplace” for whatever it is they are peddling, or because they haven’t got anything else to do.

Let me further describe him or her. A typical student in this position is 18 years old or turning 18 this year, with only three or four credits earned of the 22 needed for graduation, so he’ll be 21 when he graduates if he does everything right from here out. This student has repeatedly been absent, suspended, disruptive, truant, and sometimes preying on the rest of our students. This is the student who teachers cringe at the sight of that name on a roster and the other students are either afraid of or poorly influenced by him.

And you know what? I must “leave this child behind”. I know he needs a diploma just like every other kid. But I also know that it’s not what she’s here for, it’s not going to happen no matter how helpful, hopeful and optimistic I am. And I must consider the impact this child has on the other 500 students in the building. I must consider that this young man will sit in class next to my incoming 13 and 14-year-old freshmen. How is that fair or appropriate or conducive to their learning?

I know that some dropouts are acceptable because despite our best efforts, and I sincerely tell you we make them, we can’t do anything to change the course of their lives. I hate to put that in writing, but it’s true. And every school has those students who return every September for no good reason.

But still I struggle. I think of each of these students when I should be enjoying my own family at home. I worry about the future and wonder what they do all day. And I hate that I don’t have any good alternatives for them and I can’t “fix” them now. I know what some will say, that they have lousy homes and parents, that they could have been identified ten years ago, maybe even in kindergarten, that it’s too late, that there’s nothing we can do. And it makes me angry because inside the mess that they present to the world and their bad behavior, is still a child. A child who wasn’t loved enough or taught enough or guided enough or smart enough or helped enough. And I can’t do a damn thing about it. I can only commit to spend the time to be certain there’s no other way within our setting. I can connect the child with the right and caring people here at school and from outside agencies to be certain we’ve done our best. But sometimes it is too late for us to change a young man or woman and I have to leave this child behind.

If the answer is in the elementary years and then in the middle school years, we better get busy fast. Because I turned one away yesterday, I know it was the right thing to do, and every time it breaks my heart.