May 1, 2010


TC3 prof studies CHS dropouts

12 former students say they wanted more individual attention

StudentsBob Ellis/staff photographer
Students arrive at Cortland Junior/Senior High School in this file photo. As the school works to lower its dropout rate, a Tompkins Cortland Community College professor who spoke with 12 students who left school early has found dropouts need to see why their classes matter.

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — Students who dropped out of Cortland High School recently did so partly because school held little relevance to their lives, a Tompkins Cortland Community College professor said Thursday.
Jeanne Cameron, a sociology professor, told the college’s board of trustees that her recent study of 12 dropouts showed that these students wanted to see why their classes mattered.
They also wanted more individual attention, and felt teachers at the school favored athletes, students from high-income families and students who learned material easily, making less work for the teachers.
Cameron said she interviewed seven males and five females, ages 16 to 21, for a book she is writing, conducting several interviews with each. Eleven were white and one was black.
Asked for an example, Cameron said one boy told her that he had known since elementary school that he would drop out in high school. He said nothing seemed relevant to him.
When she asked what did seem relevant, he said, “Cars.” She suggested he take BOCES courses in automobile technology, but he said, “No, I know how to put a car together. I meant the impact of cars on history, on our society.”
Cameron said she plans to share her study with Cortland district officials.
She contacted the former students after they were recommended by Cortland Youth Bureau staff. She said some were friends of her children’s friends.
Asked if the students left school because they had children, Cameron said no, although two had children now, since dropping out.
City Superintendent of Schools Larry Spring said Cameron’s findings match some of what he and his staff have found, as they continue to work on lowering Cortland’s dropout rate.
“We have interviewed many more than 12 students, although not in that depth, and from that and looking at data, her findings are in line with what we have found,” Spring said Friday. “Not just for us but for dropouts in general.”
Spring said students from low-income backgrounds have long struggled in school, perhaps because their home life does not fit with school life and because teachers tend to come from higher income levels.
“This leads to a chicken-and-egg kind of thing, where the student spends eight hours a day in a place of frustration where he does not do well,” Spring said. “Or he wonders why people talk one way at home but he can’t talk that way at school.”
These students feel alienated at school, and sometimes feel that teachers value other kinds of students besides them.
He said the district has closed the gap between income level and test performance in some grades and schools, but low-income students still do not enroll in honors courses at a high rate.
“So there are kids who have jumped through a hoop but we haven’t really hooked them yet, we have to get them to like school and feel at home there,” Spring said.
District staff who work with students who struggle, including those at risk of dropping out, do a great deal of individual work.
“It amounts to spending 80 percent of your time on 20 percent of the student population,” he said.
Some high school students should be done with school at 16, Cameron said, because her studies have shown that many students, not just those who quit school, finish high school feeling that they have learned little of relevance.
“My recommendation is, cut ’em loose, and if they’re not ready for college, find something else for them,” she said.
Spring said school should be constantly rebuilt to fit students. He thinks 16 is too young to be leaving school, in general, although some people that young could go to college or into the workplace.
Cortland is approaching having 100 percent of its seniors accepted at colleges or schools, Spring said.
He said two Cortland seniors will receive their high school diplomas in June and then receive an associate’s degree from TC3.


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