Dropping out of high school: a focus group approach to examining why students leave and return

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Haley, Sean Andrew

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The vast majority of the ‘early school leaver’ research conducted over the past twenty-five years identifies a multitude of endogenous factors and correlates that are frequently used to identify students considered “at-risk” of dropping out of school. It has become generally accepted that schools play a more significant role than earlier acknowledged in ensuring successful high school completion for all students. Nonetheless, there remains a dearth of research that provides opportunities for inspection of the aspects of schools that might contribute to early school departure. Even fewer studies have measured students own perspectives on the matter. This study examined the voices of twenty-seven former traditional high school students who opted to leave school at least once prior to graduation (a.k.a., “drop out”), but had since re-enrolled in an urban charter school and were actively pursuing completion of their high school diploma. Via the use of focus group research (Krueger, 1994) a dialogue was created among the participants that enabled identification and interpretation of student perceptions of the schools that they decided to leave and the nature of the encounters within those institutions. The primary research questions that guided the study were: (1) what do students “dislike” about the school; (2) what factors about the school lead to students’ decisions to leave; and, (3) what motivated students to return to school? Several thematic categories emerged from the focus group discussions. Reasons for leaving school fell under the five categories of care, relationships, school/class size, policies, and professionalism. Reasons for returning were categorized as family, future opportunities, personal goals, peers, and boredom. Decisions to return were eased by elements of the new school, including the school structure, school environment, and the AmeriCorps Program. Influences on the participants’ continuation in school since re-enrollment included family, personal goals, and the new school environment. Participant responses extend the current body of knowledge around the issue of early school departure, while providing new insights into how schools can hinder or help high school completion.



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