Leaving school too soon

Oct. 2, 2003, midnight | By Kristina Yang | 17 years, 3 months ago

Blair dropouts miss opportunities, dreams

As the first bell rings through the halls of Blair, 18-year-old Patawee Khieowarn is cruising by on University Boulevard, utterly oblivious to his apparent tardiness. There is no rush in his movements as he steers through the tangle of morning traffic, no hasty turn into the student parking lot to park and run to class. It has been nearly six months since Khieowarn has walked into a classroom, after all, long enough to erase any urge to obey Blair's bells. The former senior dropped out of school last year, just a few months before his scheduled graduation.

In an era of heightened accountability and mantras of "No Child Left Behind," high schools across the nation are coming under an increasing amount of scrutiny for their efforts in pushing every child to success. Dozens of students, however, are still slipping through the cracks of the educational system. At Blair alone, 50 students withdrew from school in the six weeks beginning Aug 1, some to pursue general equivalency diplomas (GEDs), others because they had simply lost their interest in school or had so few credits they could not even hope to graduate on schedule.

Fighting Each Loss

Blair's administration has taken a number of measures to keep students in school, or at least on a track toward completing their education. "We work with students as early as we can to make sure they don't drop out in the future," Counseling Services Director Karen Hunt explains. "We try to involve them in activities or get them the support they need to succeed." This support comes in many forms, from Connections classes designed to ease freshmen into high school to "Senior Watch," a program that monitors seniors who are at particularly high risks of dropping out.

In addition, the administration sometimes gives students a second chance at staying in school after they withdraw if they can show improved commitment to their academics. Junior Tony Roongsettee left school briefly at the end of last year, but ultimately returned to finish his sophomore year. "I skipped like 80 days," he recalls. "I had six E's and one D, and I kept going off school grounds at lunch to smoke and stuff, kept getting suspended." Though the administration eventually withdrew Roongsettee from school because of his academic and discipline records, he was able to plead his case before Principal Phillip Gainous. "I told him I really wanted to stay," Roongsettee explains, "and he was like, ‘All right, if you think you can do it, you can come back.'"

Roots of Discord

According to Wanner, the majority of students who drop out of school do so out of frustration. "For the most part," she says, "it's because they don't have enough credits, and they feel discouraged or they're having difficulties in school." Certain groups of students, Wanner reports, are particularly vulnerable. "The kids most in danger are the kids with a tough time at home," she says, rattling off a list of the many factors that can induce students to despair. "They move; they drop out for half a year; they get in serious trouble, get suspended."

According to former students, however, family trouble is not as nearly as influential a factor as the administration seems to believe. Khieowarn, for example, says that peer influence was the primary reason for his own withdrawal from Blair. "All my boys dropped out," he explains, and by senior year, Khieowarn was following in their footsteps. "Most of the time," he says, "I didn't go to school; I would just go my friend's house and play games, go to clubs until three or four with my friends."

A smaller group of students are also forced from school for disciplinary reasons. Former student Noe Caal was expelled from Blair three years ago, and has not returned since. "I started a fight between Spanish people and Ethiopian people on the soccer field," he says, recounting the incident that culminated in his expulsion. "They searched my locker and found a couple of bats, so they kicked [me] out."

No Bed of Roses

Of the students who leave school before graduation, many end up working around the area, taking whatever jobs they can find to support themselves. As several have found, however, finding employment is not so easy without a high school degree. "I got a kind of on-and-off job working the night shift at a dairy store, but I can't get a real job" Caal says. Though he feels that several factors, including a trace of a Spanish accent and a "gangster look [he] can't get rid of" have dampened his employment prospects, Caal admits that his interrupted education has had a major influence as well. "They ask me, ‘You got a diploma?'" he quotes, mimicking his interviewers. "And I've got to be honest with them, like ‘No, not really.'"

While Khieowarn has had better luck finding employment, he too has experienced frustration at his workplace. Though he has found satisfactory work as a waiter and a construction worker, Khieowarn acknowledges that he could find easier and better-paying jobs if he had a diploma. "My uncle said if I finish school and get a diploma, he'll get me a job," he explains with a smile. "A good job, at a good company, better than now."

As a result of these and other difficulties, many students who have dropped out are beginning to reconsider school as an option in their futures. Most say that they would like to receive a high school diploma or GED and attend Montgomery College, noting that their chances of success would increase along with their education level. "If you want to make big money, like Bill Gates money," Caal advises, there is only one viable option. "Stay in school, or you're going to end up with a McJob." There is a hint of self-deprecation in his voice as he continues, "You don't want to be a Burger King gangster, you know?"

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Kristina Yang. Kristina Yang is 1/10 of the Blair girls' volleyball team. When not on the court, she most likely to be running away from Magnet math homework, trying to pay off her three speeding/redlight tickets, or feeding her bubble tea addiction. She would also like to … More »

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