Rezwana Islam, an undergraduate studying public health at the University of Arizona, started college roughly a year after ending her high school career somewhat nontraditionally.
Islam started college at 17, when she would have been starting her senior year of high school. She was able to start early not because she graduated high school early, as some students do, but because she dropped out of high school the summer after 10th grade — during which she attended classes for only the first half of the school year — and got her GED.
“The thing that led to me dropping out was mental-health issues,” Islam told the Star.
Islam attended Basis charter schools from fourth grade until halfway through her freshman year of high school.
The highly demanding academic culture of the charter school caused her to undermine her mental and physical health to “get ahead” in her schoolwork and compete with her ambitious classmates.
Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she attempted suicide in the eighth grade.
By the time ninth grade rolled around, she was studying into the wee hours of the morning so she could ace tests and boost her GPA.
“I developed anxiety disorder and depression, and it kind of got to the point where it was really interfering with my ability to do well in school and succeed,” Islam said.
Her campus had no school counselor at the time whom Islam could confide in, and she didn’t want to burden any of her loved ones with her pain.
She transferred to another high school, the private Gregory School, shortly after that. They accommodated her health needs more than Basis did, but she continued to struggle. In 10th grade, she attempted suicide a second time.
Throughout her mental-health struggles, Islam noticed a pattern: aspects of the traditional high school structure, like standardized tests, hours of nightly homework and high stress seemed to trigger her worst downward spirals.
So she made a move she — someone whose parents have master’s and doctorate degrees — never anticipated she would.
She dropped out.
“At that point, it was kind of apparent to me that high school just was not working,” Islam said.
Before dropping out, she researched options that would allow her to still go to college, if she ever wanted to, and learned she could still qualify for admission to any of Arizona’s three state universities with a GED certificate.
A ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL SYSTEM
“I didn’t fit,” Islam says of the traditional schooling system, because it — as most high school dropouts will tell you — wasn’t made for her.
Even with the privileges she had growing up in an upper-middle-class household with two highly educated parents, she felt overlooked by a system that tends to approach educating and learning through a one-size-fits-all approach.
Though children from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to drop out than those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, the issue can affect any student, according to Kris Bosworth, a professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Education.
Students are less likely to graduate from high school — and more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system — if they aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade, Bosworth said.
They’re also less likely to graduate if they are suspended or expelled during or before their eighth grade year, she added.
“So this goes across socioeconomic status,” Bosworth said.
That said, students from marginalized racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are more at risk of dropping out than their wealthier, white peers, Bosworth added.
“The statistics show that and, again, that’s because school is designed by people from privileged middle-class backgrounds,” Bosworth said. “And poverty exacerbates any problem.”
The general dropout rate in Arizona is nearly 5%, according to data from the Arizona Department of Education.
In the Tucson Unified School District and Sunnyside Unified School District, which serve high rates of children living in poverty, the dropout rates are 2.9% and 3.3%, respectively, school report card data from the department shows.
In Catalina Foothills and Vail — two of Tucson’s wealthier school districts — the dropout rates are lower, at 0.6% and 1.2%, respectively, according to their department report cards.
“It’s about the system,” Bosworth said. “It’s not about individual (students) that have bad intent.”
It’s simple, the people who call the highest shots in the public education system and dictate how schools should function and how students should learn usually aren’t people who struggled too much to get through school themselves, she said.
“So we don’t have that personal gut-level feeling of what it’s like to be in an environment that doesn’t support you or doesn’t provide options for you to take in the skills that you have,” Bosworth said.
FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS
That lack of personal understanding has resulted in an educational system that inadvertently leads to certain cohorts of students — those who are less typical learners or deal with life circumstances that significantly impact their ability to participate in a cookie-cutter education — to fall through the cracks.
When they fall through the cracks, they often become what education researchers call “disconnected” from their school community. When students disconnect, they feel isolated — like they could stop showing up to school and no one would care.
Students who are disconnected often struggle with other social factors, like socioeconomic, family or housing insecurity, according to Debbie Ferryman, the dropout prevention coordinator for TUSD.
Such students often fly under the radar and appear withdrawn from class and social activities. They are more likely to skip class and struggle academically than their connected peers. They might begin acting up and exhibit behavior issues that weren’t there before.
Tucsonan Rodo Ruiz would have been classified as one of those “disconnected” students.
Ruiz, now 28, struggled to get through high school despite his best efforts because he spent most of his time and energy taking care of his mother, whose health began rapidly deteriorating when he started ninth grade.
Ruiz bounced around to four different schools — three charters and one traditional high school — before dropping out for good.
In each case, as Ruiz worked to cope with his mother’s health, he struggled to show up to school each day and turn in his work. All the while, he didn’t encounter any school staffers who took the time to intervene — not even when he found himself wrapped up in the legal system, he said.
“They never asked. I never told,” Ruiz said.
Now, almost 10 years later, he works at Burger King to pay rent, keep the lights on and feed his cat.
Looking back, he wishes a teacher, a coach, an administrator — anyone, really — had asked him why he struggled with attendance or why he so frequently skipped school.
“That would have been nice,” Ruiz said. “But no one came up to me. Not any social studies teachers, not any PE teacher, math teachers, whatever.”
Ruiz said he wishes people took the time to understand the complexities that lead a person to dropout.
It’s not an easy decision to come to, he said, adding that it’s often a last resort, made because you feel you don’t have any other option, given your situation.
“Do you know what’s going on in their house? Do you know what’s going on in their head? Get to know them first,” Ruiz said.
KEEPING STUDENTS CONNECTED
TUSD’s dropout prevention department is supposed to dissuade unengaged kids at-risk from leaving school, TUSD’s Ferryman said.
The district has procedures in place, Ferryman said, to prevent students from disconnecting and giving up on school altogether.
“A dropout specialist, the first thing they’ll do is try to contact the student,” she said.
After initial contact, the specialist will work with the student to get to the root of their disconnection. Why aren’t they coming to school anymore? What would make them more likely to come back?
“(We see) what we can alter that’s getting in the way,” Ferryman said. “We try to make the school work for the student just as much as the student is working for the school.”
That could mean altering a student’s schedule to start later in the day because they get home from work late at night, enrolling them in a credit recovery program or extending a project deadline.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as just listening,” Ferryman added. “Let that kid vent. Let him or her say what they need to say and then we can work from there.”
FUNDING, FLEXIBILITY AND SOLUTIONS
There is, however, no quick fix to reducing dropout rates because it requires systemic change, the UA’s Bosworth said.
First, state and district-level school leaders need to create schools that include and accommodate students who aren’t motivated by traditional academics and don’t necessarily see college as the be-all-end-all.
Districts could go about this in many ways, Bosworth said.
They could update their curricula, incorporating more project-based learning methods and assigning textbook and reading materials that represent students from every background — not just wealthy, white students, she said.
They could ask students who dropped out what their school could have done to better meet their needs through an exit interview process.
Arizona also needs to infuse funding into its public school system if state officials want to reduce dropout rates across the board, Bosworth said.
The fact that Arizona has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country is no coincidence, she said, adding that if we don’t fix the issue soon, our economy will suffer at the state and local levels.
“We really cannot afford to have people not graduate from high school,” Bosworth said. “If we’re having people that are dropping out early, then we’re not creating a workforce that has enough skills to propel Tucson and the rest of the economy forward.”
The National Education Association, the largest teacher labor group in the United States, has formulated strictly regimented plans for reducing dropouts.
The NEA’s 12-point plan suggests mandating high school graduation for students under the age of 21, ensuring class sizes are small and safe at 18 students or fewer, providing free all-day kindergarten and more.
At the end of the day, though, it is somewhat inevitable that some students are going to drop out no matter what level of support their school gives them.
Ruiz and Islam both say they don’t regret their decisions to leave school.
For Ruiz, it meant spending more time with his mother before she passed away, and for Islam, it meant taking time to heal — something neither of them said they could have done as full-time high school students.
That said, they both hope to see the school system change to be more inclusive of students who don’t fit the traditional academic mold.
“There needs to be a better effort to provide resources from the start,” Islam said. “Because a lot of these things can be a long time coming. ... You have to start from the beginning — not wait until the end to fix an issue that’s been developing for years.”