Dropouts defy stereotypes

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006

It's difficult to tell that 17-year-old Maria Monagle is a high school dropout.

An articulate young lady, she was a member of the student council, enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, and a member of the Juneau-Douglas High School Site Council. She defies the assumption that high school dropouts are the unintelligent, destined to roam the dregs of society.

"Some people who don't look like they're going to drop out do, or stay behind in school," she said. "You can't take the dropout rate as one kind of people or you're going to miss a lot."

Information recently released by the Juneau School District indicates that many students buck social perceptions and stigmas. According to the district, of all the seniors who dropped out between 2000 and 2005, 64 percent were proficient or advanced in reading, 67 percent in writing, and 55 percent in math.

Monagle said she felt disengaged from school when she entered JDHS as a freshman, cut off from those who might help.

"I didn't make the connections in ninth grade," she said. "I wanted to be my own person."

By her fourth year at JDHS Monagle found herself behind, with the academic standing of a junior.

"It turns out my option was to stay in high school longer or to get my GED and go to college next year," she said. "And I would much rather go to college next year."

Monagle did earn her general equivalency diploma this winter and is now applying for the University of Alaska Fairbanks with hopes of enrolling this fall. She said she hopes to become a social worker and help troubled kids.

Christine Wallace, 17, said she dropped out of Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School in October because she didn't make any strong connections with teachers.

"I dropped out because, for one, the teachers made me feel like I was a little slow or retarded, and that's not at all how it is," she said. "I didn't like that."

Wallace is now working on completing her GED on her own terms.

"When you do your honest best and that's not enough, they get disappointed and that really hurts your self-esteem and makes it harder and makes you not want to go on," she said.

Students who drop out of high school and do not return to the classroom face a struggle.

Yaakoosge Daakahidi Principal Laury Scandling said the earning power of high school dropouts is dramatically decreased in comparison to those who get a diploma.

"You make a quarter-million more over your lifetime if you just get the diploma, even if you don't go to a moment of college," she said. "It's a meal ticket, baby."

Mary Rodman-Lopez, acting manager of the Juneau Job Center, said finding a job in Alaska's capital can be difficult for high school dropouts.

"The majority of the employers like to see that they at least follow through with a high school diploma or GED," Rodman-Lopez said.

There are employment opportunities in Juneau for dropouts, she said, but they might not be satisfying.

"They can work as a cashier clerk or something like that without a high school diploma, but if they want a higher-paying job they probably have to have a high school diploma or GED," Rodman-Lopez said.

Specialized skills and hard work can sometimes help employers overlook the fact that an applicant does not have a diploma, she said.

The chances of landing in jail also increase for those without a diploma, corrections officials say.

Portia Parker, the deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections, said Alaska does not keep statistics on inmates with or without a high school diploma.

"We can say that a high percentage of our incarcerated inmates do not have a high school diploma or a college diploma," Parker said.

Some dropouts later decide it is better to return and finish what they started before it's too late.

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"A lot of us have different problems and mine was mainly because of the teachers," said 17-year-old Benjamin Marvin, who re-enrolled at the alternative high school after dropping out.

"It was kind of personal problems too, not just school and teachers."

Marvin, an Alaska Native, said there are racism issues in the school district, alienating some students.

"A bunch of what we call 'preps' - what they call us is 'dirty Natives,' and throw garbage at us," he recalled from JDHS. "I didn't like that. I didn't want to deal with that no more."

Joe Eller, 16, said he dropped out of school to get his GED because it was difficult to manage his personal life and schoolwork at the same time.

"I wasn't going to school because school was just a little too hard," he said. "It was like a brain overload for me. It was frustrating. I don't know - I'd rather work than go to school."

Eller now has two jobs, and has begun second-guessing his decision.

"After taking the time to think about it, I need the education. So I'm going to go back," he said.

Eller said the average student in the 21st Century has a lot of daily pressures, including peer pressure.

"A lot of kids are into partying, drinking and doing drugs," he said. "That's what they want to do, and if they're going to want to, they're going to do it."

Eller said he believes substance use and abuse is the main reason kids are leaving the school system.

"That would be the main reason why kids are dropping out in Juneau, Alaska," he said. "Kids are doing methamphetamines and cocaine at like 12 years old."

Monagle said she would advise incoming freshmen to take advantage of all the opportunities when in school.

"I would have definitely gotten involved in some kind of club," she said. "When you're a freshman it doesn't seem really cool to get involved in a club, but it makes a big difference."

Making connections with administrators and creating a strong relationship with a counselor would also be beneficial, Monagle said.

"I would tell them that every class counts. Every credit counts," she said. "You'll end up paying for it when you're a senior and you have a full class load instead of three classes like your friends."

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