Academic journal article High School Journal

Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School

Academic journal article High School Journal

Cultural Contradictions and School Leaving: A Case Study of an Urban High School

Article excerpt

The high dropout rate in urban high schools, particularly among poor and racial minority youth, continues to be a vexing problem confronting public education in the U.S. Although much research and many prevention efforts have been devoted to this issue, dropout rates continue to soar. In this article, the authors present a case study analysis of un urban high school that was attempting to address the high dropout rate. Instead of focusing on social and academic risk factors that assume the problem lies in the student and his or her family, we examine how the culture and structure of the high school influenced teachers' instructional practices and resulted in contradictory beliefs about students and their families. These contradictions between school culture and structure, instruction, and many students' home culture contributed to the school's high dropout rate.


Most Americans agree that a high school diploma opens doors. Students with a high school diploma are afforded opportunities in the job market and post-secondary education that high school dropouts rarely access. Because the value of a high school education has increased considerably over the last half century, when students leave school without graduating, it negatively affects their futures and that of the nation. The disparity of opportunities between high school dropouts and graduates is significant and the costs to society are high (Land & Legters, 2002). High school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, to earn less when they are employed, are more likely to receive public assistance, and are more likely to be incarcerated (Kaufman, Alt, & Chapman, 2001). In contrast, a high school graduate is more likely to have job security, higher earning potential, and stronger support networks (Land & Letgers). To underscore the importance of a high school diploma, even holders of the Graduate Educational Development (GED) credential do not have the same earning potential as a high school graduate (Smith, 2003).

High dropout and low graduation rates have unfortunately become the norm in many urban high schools (Gandara, Larson, Rumberger, & Mehan, 1998; Rumberger & Rodriguez, 2002). Dropout prevention and recovery programs proliferated during the 1980s and 1990's, yet poor and minority youth have continued to leave school in relatively high numbers (Montecel, Cortez, & Cortez, 2004; Velez & Saenz, 2001). Dropout rates among Latino youth remain consistently higher than any other group (Fry, 2003; Rumberger & Rodriguez, 2002). For many youth, dropping out represents a final act of disengagement from school that began in the elementary grades (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997; Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001).

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has further raised awareness of high school dropout and graduation rates. NCLB requires districts to annually prepare and disseminate local report cards that include information about students' performance on state assessments and graduation rates for secondary school students (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). Under NCLB schools must show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on state assessments and other performance indicators. In the state where this study was conducted, graduation rate is used as an indicator to determine if secondary schools meet their AYP goals.

Prairie High School (a pseudonym), the urban high school that was the focus of this study, in 2002-03 graduated only 53.6% of the cohort of students that began as freshmen, and failed to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress as required by NCLB. Low-income Latino students accounted for a majority of those who left the school without graduating. Although Prairie High's graduation rate had been declining steadily for several years, district administrators deemed the situation critical when the school's graduation rate fell to the lowest among all high schools in the state. …

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