Drop Out, Join In

Professor Recruits Young People Without Diplomas to Help Study Peers
by Karen Shih ’09 | illustration by Kelsey Marotta ’14

Edwin Alamo spent more time in prison than in school. Two decades ago, facing multiple suspensions and a system that didn’t seem to care whether he showed up for class, he dropped out of ninth grade in Lawrence, Mass.

A year later, he was convicted of a gang-related attempted murder, for which he served 12 years in prison. “I was into the streets and gang activity,” says Alamo. “I just wanted to be part of the crowd and who I felt good with.”

His lack of education isn’t unusual in the post-industrial city of 75,000: Half of its students never graduate from high school. Nationally, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than 3 million people ages 18 to 24 don’t have a high school diploma or GED. Their prospects are grim: Less than 40 percent are employed, estimates the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with most holding only low-wage, part-time or temporary jobs.

When education Assistant Professor Tara Brown approached Alamo at a construction training program in 2012 to study this issue, he saw it as an opportunity to help a new generation in his majority-Latino town—which includes his own relatives—understand and avoid his mistakes. She recruited two other high school dropouts, Jesus Santos and Newlyn De La Rosa, and together they conducted about 40 interviews and collected about 220 surveys from others like them, aged 18 to 24.

“It’s really challenging to go into a community where I’m an outsider and I have no trust or credibility,” Brown says. “They knew the lay of the land, the rhythms and other young people.”

She found that one of the biggest problems in Lawrence was that students didn’t know their rights. For example, students in Massachusetts are entitled to public education until they’re 21 (or 22, if they are special education students), but many of the interviewees believed that after they were 16 and legally permitted to drop out, administrators could remove them at any time. Administrators were also supposed to give them hearings if they were suspended or expelled, but few did. Though individual teachers occasionally reached out, there was little formal follow-up from the school after the young people stopped attending.

The academic rigors of high school also overwhelmed many of these students. Discouraged and lacking support, many repeated ninth grade—including one who did it four times.

“If that’s not persistence, what is?” Brown asks. “That’s a motivated person, but repetition is not intervention. Maybe this person needs to be taught in a different way.”

Brown and the three men are still analyzing the survey data and planning an April educational rights forum in Lawrence.

She hopes to replicate her research in majority-black Baltimore to better understand the role of culture in educational attainment. She also plans to continue working with dropouts like Alamo—who just completed his first semester in community college, studying business.

Brown “wasn’t just a co-researcher or somebody who interviewed me. We got to be friends and she was very helpful and influential to me going back to school,” says Alamo. “This project made me see that there’s people out there who really care.”


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