The Struggle is Real: Students Need More Than Self-Determination to Graduate

The graduation celebrations are abundant this time of year.

America’s schools are proudly promoting students and encouraging graduates to pursue dreams of higher education. But the students who were either left back or dropped out are often stigmatized for missing the opportunity to move their tassels to the left and toss their caps in the air.

“Put your head down and work hard.”

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Focus on your goals and make smart choices.”

These adages seem so easy to execute for any “self-determined” high school student. But the truth is that our young people are struggling despite their determination—especially young people of color. And they deserve more than empty platitudes about thriving in the face of adversity. Especially when you consider the fact that students of color are not responsible for the racist systems that created and sustain their school challenges, nor can they independently close the achievement gaps that expand between them and their white counterparts year after year. They do not choose to struggle; they are, in fact, set up to fail.

Their communities are under-resourced. They are navigating extensive educational, mental, and physical health ramifications caused by a global pandemic. And they experience dehumanization and the ever-present danger of racism every day of their young lives. Public systems that are supposed to support them (education, housing, social services, health, and even the justice system) are stacked against them; and young people are hard-pressed to find the spaces for connection, protection, affection, and redirection they need to heal, grow, and thrive. It should be no surprise when some students struggle to reach the next grade level, graduate high school, or pursue higher education.

It is exciting when we see young people succeeding in spite of their circumstances. Those reports make the news as “feel-good” stories. But these “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” messages have long been identified as more harmful than helpful, and we should definitely not feel good about that. Students are harmed when society expects them to repeatedly and consistently jump over hurdles rather than acknowledging our responsibility to remove barriers to success for our young people. Students are hindered when state and district test scores and graduation rates mask the failures of the education system in Black and Brown communities. And students are discouraged when teachers, administrators, doctors, and law enforcement lay the full weight of our society’s failures squarely on their shoulders.

Students of Color Deserve Better

At the very least, the school systems that educate our young people should take a hard look at the systems and policies that hold them back. In order to help more students reach the milestone of graduation, schools should focus on promoting academically and emotionally supportive environments for all students by acknowledging and addressing their challenges, recognizing their assets, and fostering their self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and safety.

We cannot vilify students who do not graduate and cast them off as failures. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Pacific Islander students encounter an array of systemic and institutional challenges that drive up dropout rates. And they often attend high-poverty high schools that lack high-quality instruction, have high turnover rates and novice teachers, and are overwhelmed by non-academic factors that hinder students’ achievement—such as facing chronic exposure to racial trauma and living through a global pandemic where loved ones are dying and there is mounting economic stressors on students’ families.

We Must Remove the Barriers to Student Success

No matter their zip code, immigration status, household composition, or physical or mental health concern, all students deserve to thrive in supportive and well-resourced schools where they are not automatically shackled by adversity as soon as they step foot in a classroom. Schools have a responsibility to collaborate with the supportive adults and organizations that surround young people to remove the barriers to their success and implement solutions.

We can make significant progress toward helping all young people succeed with these four steps:

  1. Create a vision for thriving – People of color should guide the discussions about what thriving will look like in their communities. And youth voices should be centered in the interventions that will impact them. We must both ask students what they need to be successful and seek their insights about the factors that hinder their success. Then, be prepared to act on their concerns with recommendations that they help to devise.
  1. Use data to interrogate public policy and inform innovative solutions – To eliminate health, education, and social disparities for young people of color, we must first understand the data identifying how policies enacted across these systems actually impact them. And this data must be disaggregated by race and ethnicity for additional insight into their health and development. Additional strategies for school systems will include:
  • Addressing remediation and dropout challenges as a systemwide issue
  • Considering alternative strategies, such as changing the pace or setting in schools
  • Engaging student-centered curricula
  • Providing instruction beyond the school day and/or year
  1. Cultivate public will to facilitate learning and healing – As educators spend at least half of students’ waking hours with them, school systems must share in the responsibility of shaping and communicating new narratives about who our young people are and what they deserve. Though they may experience challenging situations at both community and societal levels, they have strengths and assets that are worthy of exploring and encouraging.
  1. Implement culturally responsive programs and policies – Identity and culture each play an important role in healthy youth development. Programmatic and policy decisions must factor in the cultural histories and experiences of young people and their communities, rather than othering them for their authentic expressions of individual and cultural identities. Schools can help students to reclaim their humanity by honoring and encouraging this authenticity and implementing asset-framed programs and policies that are steeped in the lived experiences of youth of color.

Self-determination is only part of the equation for students’ success. It takes some young people everything they have to graduate high school. And it takes others everything they have to live in safety and security from day-to-day. Each of these scenarios puts the responsibility completely on the child to cross any finish line they can. These are kids. And they deserve to live and learn with the freedom to discover their paths in life without additional burdens placed upon them by society. It is our duty to remove known barriers to their academic success, so that all children can experience a wealth of options for their futures.

No matter their background or circumstance—this is what all of our students deserve.