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GETTING BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS: Social Support Helps Youth Overcome Life’s Barriers to High School Graduation, According to America’s Promise Alliance

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Young people who leave high school before graduating report twice as many “adverse life experiences”—such as becoming a parent, being suspended or expelled, having a mental health issue, or being homeless—as youth who graduate on time,

Can a single person prevent a student from dropping out of high school? Maybe not on his or her own, but teens who have a stable and trusting relationship with a caring nonfamily adult are more likely to finish high school. That finding comes from Don’t Quit on Me: What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships, a new report from America’s Promise Alliance. The report examines the roles that relationships and social support play in students’ decisions to stay in, leave, and return to high school. Researchers surveyed more than 2,800 young people and interviewed more than 120 others to determine what prevents youth from graduating from high school, or graduating on time, and the types and sources of support students need to overcome those obstacles.

“Relationships are powerful vehicles for growth, particularly for young people living in challenging circumstances,” John Gomperts, president and chief executive officer of America’s Promise Alliance, says in the foreword to the report. “And yet, too many young people don’t have enough relationships with stable, caring adults who can help them get what they need to stay on track toward graduation and career.”

Young people who leave high school before graduating report twice as many “adverse life experiences”—such as becoming a parent, being suspended or expelled, having a mental health issue, or being homeless—as youth who graduate on time, according to the report. In fact, more than 50 percent of young people who leave high school endure five or more adverse life experiences between the ages of 14 and 18. Such experiences become powerful predictors of a student’s likelihood of dropping out of high school. Students who are suspended or expelled even once, for example, are almost two and one-half times more likely to leave high school before graduating, the report notes.

Fortunately, relationships with parents, adults in and out of school, and peers can mitigate the impacts of certain adverse life events; but whether those relationships get teens to graduation day depends on the type, source, and intensity of the support young people receive.

According to Don’t Quit on Me, emotional support (expressions of comfort and caring) and instrumental support (offers of tangible resources or services) from parents, adults in school, and adults outside of school have the greatest impact on students’ decisions to remain in school. Teens who receive overall support from adults at their schools are 25 percent less likely to leave high school before graduating, while those who receive instrumental and emotional support from adults in school and their parents are 20 percent less likely to leave, the report says.

Additionally, a young person needs a strong relationship with a trusted nonfamily adult who provides unconditional support and serves as an “anchor” or stabilizing force in the student’s life, the report says. Such relationships are especially crucial for helping dropouts reengage with school and graduate, the report adds. But that single relationship is not enough to sustain a student. According to the report, young people also need a more comprehensive “web of support” that includes multiple individuals, both within and outside of family, who provide varying levels and types of support.

Unfortunately, for young people facing the greatest challenges—typically those encountering five or more adverse life experiences—social support alone often is not enough to keep them on track, the report notes. Relationships still matter to such young people, but they also need targeted resources to resolve issues of trauma, housing, food insecurity, and other social and economic barriers standing between them and their diplomas, the report says.

“Without social support, young people facing many risks are all too likely to leave school before graduating,” the report says. “Social supports from multiple sources partially buffer the effects of adverse life experiences for most young people. But those facing the greatest adversity often need more intensive support than family, school and friends can provide.”

Don’t Quit on Me: What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships is available at http://gradnation.org/report/dont-quit-me.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.