Texas schools lose one out of every four students who drop out between 9th and 12th grades. The problem is especially alarming for Hispanic and black males, who are more than twice as likely to leave school. So what's gone wrong?
As part of KERA’s “Texas Graduate” initiative, we went to the source to find out. At the Dallas Can Academy in Oak Cliff, teen boys talked about why they dropped out and what convinced them to give school another try.
A year ago, you wouldn’t have found 17-year-old Richard Flores hurrying to an English class at the Dallas Can Academy in Oak Cliff. Near the end of the school year, Richard dropped out after being kicked out.
“I was in class and a guy just started talking smack to me and we got into it. He got me kicked out before the TAKS test and I couldn’t take it,” said Richard.
Then, in the fall, Richard enrolled late and left school again. He told friends he just wanted to have fun. He didn’t need an education. But what was really going on was more difficult to talk about.
“My dad got deported,” Richard explained. “I got into a car wreck. I couldn’t pay attention in school because I thought about my dad a lot. I thought about him every day in class.”
Richard’s education was being derailed by personal and family problems so deep he didn’t want to take on the additional pressures of school.
It’s a familiar theme we heard from other teen boys who are returning to school at the Dallas Can Academy.
Treyvontae Broomsey, 17, was expelled for fighting, but he says the real problem was being lonely. He couldn’t adjust to a new Dallas school after moving from Louisiana.
“All my friends are back at home and people down here I don’t know too much,” Treyvontae said. “So I tried to make new friends, but I couldn’t get along with them because of how I act."
Eighteen-year old Angel Morley says he was a good student until his stepfather left the family and he and his mother moved from California to Texas.
“After he left and stuff, we started struggling and started moving from household to household. At one point I was staying at my cousin’s house knowing she smokes and drinks every night,” Angel said. “I didn’t know anybody in Texas so I started failing and I got taken out of school.”
Statistically speaking, Richard, Treyvontae and Angel are more likely to drop out than other teens. One research group that tracks dropout issues says 41 percent of Hispanic males in Texas and 36 percent of African American males don’t finish 12th grade on time. That’s compared with 27 percent of all Texas students.
While it’s difficult to identify a single reason, poverty appears to be a factor.
Students from families with the lowest 25 percent of incomes are seven times more likely to drop out than students from the highest income families.
Richard Marquez, the CEO of Texans Can Academies, understands dropouts. He was one of them many years ago. Then he rebooted his education to become a Dallas high school principal and the first President Bush’s adviser on dropout prevention.
Marquez believes the lack of strong, male role models is one reason minority male teens struggle in school.
“The girls have their role models, and mostly it's mothers. And the boys have mostly women as role models,” Marquez said. “In a lot of instances, they can’t find themselves. They don’t have anybody to talk to.”
“They feel like they’re failing one way or another, either socially or educationally,” he said. “Somebody has to get them back in the mainstream and explain to them they are intelligent, they are capable, they are competent and somebody is going to take some time to help them.”
Marquez says the Can Academy campuses are designed to provide structural and emotional support that may be absent in big public schools.
In the hallways, you’ll see more than the average number of minority male teachers and counselors -- role models that may be missing at home.
In the classroom, a teacher works with no more than 15 students. Social workers are there to help students sort through their personal problems. The school day is split into halves so students can hold down jobs if they need to.
“We should always accept them regardless of their circumstances, and we should understand humans mature at different ages and all they need is a tremendous amount of support and assistance,” Marquez said.
It’s a formula that’s working for Trayvontae, who says he finally fits in somewhere.
“These students don’t come up here to play around. They come up here, do their work and leave,” he said. “They are trying to graduate just like me.”
The Dallas Can model is also working for Angel, who now sees a future beyond his transitory home life.
“I was thinking about going to Ohio State to study paleontology. When I was young I was always fascinated by dinosaurs,” he said.
Richard credits a former girlfriend with his coming back to school.
“She told me, “You’re so smart. You have all this potential, don’t let it go to waste because then you’ll just be a statistic and a fool,' " he said. “My goal is to graduate and go to college for graphic design. I want to open my own clothing label.”
These teens may be changing the statistical model for minority dropouts. When all is said and done, they plan to be on the right side of the equation, holding their diplomas.
But the path may be bumpy, as it has been for another student we met at the Dallas Can Academy. Seventeen-year-old Fernando told us about moving between his father’s and mother’s homes where no one made him go to school.
“I really didn’t have that parental support,” Fernando explained. “My sister was there for me. She cooked and cleaned for me and washed my clothes and stuff. But I had to learn everything on my own. I didn’t have anybody to look out for me or anything,” he said.
The day after our interview school officials asked Fernando to leave for reasons they can’t talk about. But they hope he’ll return as many of their students do.