No ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Approach to Dropout Prevention

Cynthia Tercero dropout prevention

Cynthia Tercero at the recent “Champions of Change” even at the White House.

During an unusually cold and rainy winter in Phoenix, Arizona, Carlos, a senior at Phoenix Union High School, stopped going to school. Not because he was struggling academically or because he’d lost interest in his education. He didn’t have discipline or behavioral problems either.

Carlos stopped going because the only shoes he had that fit him were a pair of flip-flops, and they’d become very uncomfortable on his hour-long commute that included walking to and from public transportation.

“He said his feet were so cold and wet that he just didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Cynthia Tercero, the dropout programs developer at the Phoenix Union High School District. “He was embarrassed when teachers would ask him why was wearing flip-flops in class.”

He wore a size 12 shoe and couldn’t share with his brother or dad, so Tercero worked with the school’s community liaisons to buy Carlos a pair of slightly used tennis shoes and plenty of socks.

If you look closely, you’ll find teenage truancy is often the result of social pressures and fear of embarrassment.

Another student at Phoenix High skipped school because he had no running water at home. With no way to shower, he was ashamed to come to school with unwashed hair, smelling of body odor. Tercero arranged for him to have private access to the locker room showers before school started so nobody would need to know.

Dropout Prevention Based on Listening and Supporting

“Regardless of the need or how insignificant it may seem to others, for the student who is hungry or grieving, who is unable to shower or doesn’t have shoes or clothes, these needs are very significant barriers to attending school,” Tercero says.

Finding solutions is all part of a days’ work for Tercero, who was recently named an Education Support Professional “Champion of Change” by the White House for creating and implementing several programs for high-risk youth to help them overcome barriers to graduation.

In her dropout prevention work, Tercero does everything from helping kids find the right bus routes and providing them with alarm clocks to assisting teen parents locate affordable daycare. She helps kids graduate and go on to lead productive lives by simply listening to their stories of struggle and finding a way to help.

Not all consequences need to be negative or punitive, she says.

She often shares the story of a student who was kicked out of class for being tardy and cursing under his breath when he was questioned about it.  By the time the student made it to the office with his discipline referral, he was visibly upset.  She talked to him for a few minutes and asked what else was wrong.

For the student who is hungry or grieving, who is unable to shower or doesn’t have shoes or clothes, these needs are very significant barriers to attending school. – Cynthia Tercero

It turned out his father had passed away the night before, but he’d come to school because his house was crowded with grieving family and friends and he just wanted to find refuge at school. A knee-jerk reaction to his lateness and foul language might have been an in- or out-of-school suspension, which could have led to more anger and frustration and his eventual dropping out. Instead, he was referred to the school’s Greif Support Group.

“Schools have become such data driven institutions that we often have to remind others that these numbers (a tardy here, and absence there) represent human beings — our students — who each have their individual story, needs and struggles,” Tercero says.

Most students at risk for suspension or dropping out struggle with grief, anger, loss of hope, lack of self-esteem, and a lack of coping skills.

“Students often let their emotions get in the way, and they may display behaviors that are acceptable in the home or that they see modeled at home, and so they are really confused if they get suspended for them.”

Goal is to Keep Kids in School, Not Kick Them Out

According to Tercero, educators need to provide students with the opportunity to learn how to change the behaviors that are getting them into trouble in the first place.

Restorative practices can change the entire school culture and helps educators and students develop better relationships.  When we only use suspension as a form of discipline, students return from their suspensions and often repeat behaviors and continue to get in trouble.  We assume that all students know how to problem-solve and make sound decisions.

“Behavior is a form of communication – as educators, it’s our job to figure out what is at the root of the behavior,” she says. “I am firm believer that all students can succeed.”

Tercero oversees alternatives to suspension programs for her district and facilitates the mandated intervention groups that provide a safe place for students to learn resiliency techniques and receive support in areas such as decision making, self-esteem, anger management, substance abuse, communication and positive choices.  The goal is to decrease the number of off campus suspension days that students receive while also addressing the root cause of the behaviors.  Phoenix Union’s number of repeat offenders has decreased over the last 5 years and the completion rates for their mandated interventions have increased.

One of the toughest parts of her job is getting staff and administrators to understand and respect varied definitions of success. Not all students go on to colleges or universities. For many students, graduating and finding a good job out of high school is a major accomplishment and should be celebrated. Through the district’s Career and Technical Education program, many students learn a trade and, upon graduation, find jobs as cosmetologists, electricians or chefs. One of the school maintenance staff members was a former student of Phoenix Union High School and is very proud that he graduated and found a steady job with a pension.

Tercero is very proud of her school’s dropout rate, which was 22 percent when she started 20 years ago. Today, it’s 3.2 percent, which is lower than the state average.

“The best part of my job is seeing students thrive and hearing from students about how much our programs have helped them.  When you see the light go off and see the change in confidence and self-esteem,” she says. “When I see students go from feeling defeated to being hopeful, that’s when I know they will be okay, because they believe in themselves and feel supported.”