The State of the SocialJerk

26 01 2012

As good, loyal Americans, I’m sure we all watched the State of the Union address. I know I did. The whole thing. Until just about twenty minutes before it was over, when we realized we were bored and had a stack of Modern Family DVDs. What? Speeches get repetitive.

Before I go on, let me say I like Obama. Like most east coast, liberal, college-educated, fake Americans, when I’m not meeting with my coven over brunch or cavorting with known homosexuals, I’m being inspired by our president. There are some things I wish he had done differently, or at all, but overall, I like him.

As a modern lady (I can be a lady if I want to) I watched the state of the union whilst Tweeting. And I saw that a lot of my fellow American social workers were struck by the same line that I was.

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. ”

This is an issue that affects my work directly. We work with kids who have effectively dropped out, whether or not it’s legal, all the time. It’s a problem we’re supposed to fix. I could just hear my teens’ reactions to the president’s proposal.

“Wait. I’m supposed to be in school? Heavens to Betsy, I had no idea! I’ll get myself over there post haste.”

I work with two sisters, ages 13 and 15. They’re in 7th and 9th grade, respectively. They have barely attended school all year. They see me for counseling (when I hunt them down.) ACS is involved. The school staff is shockingly dedicated, cares deeply about these kids, and have gone above and beyond to accomodate them.

But they refuse to attend school. They leave the house and go where they please. If they are walked to school, they hang out for an hour and then take off. School staff can tell them to stay, but they aren’t allowed to touch or restrain the kids. They head out to Flying-Spaghetti-Monster-knows-where until the end of the day. Their mother has no control, and has accepted the situation for what it is. They’ve been removed and placed in foster care and returned home more than once, and it made no difference.

They’re already not allowed to drop out, but they kind of have. If the age were raised to 18, would this behavior have been delayed for two years? Maybe. No wait, that’s stupid. Definitely not.

I have worked with other kids who gave up on school because they were so hopelessly far behind. I’m talking about 15, 16, and 17 year olds who were still in seventh grade, and could barely read. If they suddenly passed every year in a row, they would be 22 when graduating high school. And what are the odds that they’ll suddenly get on track academically?

There are some really good programs for kids who have missed a lot of school, are far behind, and want to graduate high school. Young Adult Borough Centers do a great job of accomodating these “overaged, under-credited” kids and getting them jobs and helping them to graduate. There are some wonderful GED programs as well. But the kids have to be in high school, and they have to be at least 17. Prior to that, they’re essentially told to wait it out.

Kids who are already truant in middle school are really lost in the shuffle. For years.

I don’t have all the answers, (it’s true, I know it’s upsetting to hear, but it’s true) but I have seen things work. Some kids have different learning needs and require an IEP, and somehow this goes unnoticed until they’re 13 and running the streets. It’s not ideal, but it’s not too late, and getting the kid in the right setting can make all the difference.

Some kids are afraid to go to school for some reason–threats of violence, fear of being arrested (one of my girls uses this excuse all the time. I think if she were really that afraid she’d stop jumping other students and stealing their stuff, but I digress.) At times this is legitimate, and needs to be addressed either by the school, or with a safety transfer.

A mentoring program or extracurricular activities that require a student to be attending school have made a huge difference in attendance for some kids I work with. One of my girls had zero interest in school, but was sufficiently excited about an afterschool dance program. It got her ass in her seat, which was my goal. Then she realized that class wasn’t quite as terrible as she thought. When kids get to an age where they’re offered, there are alternative schools that do excellent work. We need more of these programs. Desperately.

And we need more options for kids. We have over one million students in the New York City public school system. They’re not all going to graduate. I’m not talking about giving up on kids who are not succeeding academically, but we need to be realistic. There’s just no such thing as 100%. If a young person is really unable to do what is required to get an academic high school diploma, or is so disinterested that the alternative is them getting nothing and being half-heartedly chased by city officials until the age of 16 (or 18) we need another option.

Truancy is an extremely complicated, horribly frustrating problem to work on. There is not a simple solution.

Raising the dropout age, though? That’s just fucked.



6 responses

26 01 2012

I am so happy to see this blog by a social worker south of the border. I watched and was immediately struck by the hardships this will impose on youth and families. Why fall back on punitive measures like mandatory attendance, why not find ways to make schools more inviting, safer and healthier. Great post.

27 01 2012
SocialWrkGirl (@SocialWrkGirl)

OMG you’re canadian? Because for 2 seconds I thought “wait, SJ is in NYC not Mexico” … ooh that’s just good stuff.

27 01 2012

You’re hilarious.

27 01 2012

I was talking about this with some other social workers last night, and we were saying it wouldn’t be so terrible if there were funding to make schools better and have programs to keep kids attending. But a mandate without money is at best useless, but more likely damaging.


31 01 2012

when i heard this part of the speech i laughed. i was with two non-social workers (one a computer guru, the other a graphic design guru) and they didn’t get it. i said the same thing “oh yes, clearly, forcing teenagers to do anything usually works.” my gurus were just utterly confused, as if i was encouraging children to drop out of school as kindergartners. i wanted to hold a human development 101 course on the spot and discuss the finer points of mandating that teenagers do anything.

the idea behind it is well intentioned but, as is often in much political policy, unrealistic. when our educational system figures this out: we’ll have a better chance of really engaging children and youth.

24 05 2012

I interned in a school with the overage and undercredited students and now work with some students destined for that path (at least I hope that or GED vs. nothing) with no options until they are older, have more credits, pass more Regents, develop magical powers, etc. So I can’t agree with you more. I don’t have much else to say on that note, but really, more options… please…

By the way, yes, I am rereading through your blog.

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