The Important Role of Engagement with Young People that Leave School Early

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Today, America’s Promise Alliance’s Center for Promise released a new brief that reveals the game-changing role that positive and supportive relationships play in re-engaging youth who have left school and outlines a series of recommendations to help more young people overcome barriers to school engagement. The report, More Than a Village: Perspectives on Re-engagement in Tucson, draws its findings and recommendations from interviews with 14 individuals from Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Dropout Prevention Team and Youth on the Rise, organizations leading re-engagement efforts in Tucson, Arizona.

More Than a Village is the second study by the Center for Promise on the re-engagement efforts in Tucson. The first, I’m Going Back – The Re-Engagement Experiences of Tucson Youthwas released in January, and focused on the experiences of 28 young people across Tucson overcoming barriers to re-engage with their education. Both studies found that as the underpinning of successful re-engagement, supportive relationships not only establish trust and better understanding of young people’s needs, but also connect young people to additional supports in the community and help them access these supports for themselves and their families. The interviews revealed that adults leading re-engagement efforts are in alignment with the young people they are working with – both demographics identified the same roadblocks initially revealed in the predecessor report I’m Going Back. These roadblocks include familial instability, financial constraints, inflexible scheduling, and an unwelcoming school climate.

Across the country young people are experiencing these roadblocks: the national graduation rate stands at 84.6 percent, below the national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate (as of 2017). This translates to nearly 570,000 young people in America who either leave school or do not complete high school within four years. One important way to increase the graduation rate and put more young people on a path to adult success is to bring back youth who leave school, many of whom are not far from being on track to graduate. The collective insights highlighted in More Than a Village and I’m Going Back can help program designers and managers cultivate a more comprehensive understanding of how re-engagement efforts are designed, implemented and experienced.

“Mayors, superintendents, and other local leaders are uniquely positioned to bring together the resources, services and supports that young people need to stay engaged in their education,” said John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “The efforts underway in Tucson show how cities and towns across the nation can bridge the gap between what young people need and what adults can do in partnership with youth to meet those needs on an individual and community level.”

The report was officially unveiled today at an event with Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who emphasized the important role that community schools can play in creating learning environments that keep young people engaged in their education and highlighted the importance of the findings for both young people in Tucson and in communities across the country.

“It’s common sense that people respond well to those who take a genuine interest in and care about their well-being,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “Approaching students with the right attitude can go very far toward keeping them engaged in school or reengaging them with school.”

The report is based on insights gained from 14 individual interviews conducted by the Center for Promise with members of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Dropout Prevention Team, which spearheads intervention strategies for youth deemed at-risk of school failure, as well as members of Youth on the Rise, a collective impact initiative program coordinated by United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona with the mission of preparing young people in Pima County with the support and skills necessary for healthy development and success in school and life.

Among the most compelling of the report’s findings are the commonalities adults working on re-engagement in Tucson share in their approaches to working with young people, which include:

  • Relationships come first: All adults interviewed recognized that building and maintaining relationships characterized by trust, care, and connectedness are foundational to supporting young people who have disengaged from school.
  • “It takes more than a village”: Working to address young people’s complex needs on a daily basis often requires connecting young people to additional support in the community or showing them how to access support for themselves or their families.
  • Enhanced collaboration accelerates positive policy change: Across the city, adults highlighted success in their efforts to coordinate support at the school and district levels and to spur policy change based on the needs they saw or heard directly from young people.

“I am very proud of the Tucson Unified Steps to Success program and appreciate the support of America’s Promise Alliance,” said Dr. Gabriel Trujillo, Superintendent Tucson Unified School District. “Over the past 5 years, our Dropout Prevention team along with community partners have reconnected over 1,200 students with almost 700 returning to school. This is a great accomplishment and I feel strongly that each student that we connect with has a better chance of creating a positive, productive future for themselves.”

While those working on re-engagement efforts from TUSD and Youth on the Rise provided examples of successful collaboration, they also described consistent limitations and challenges in their work. These challenges could be addressed by continuing to enhance collaboration of re-engagement efforts across the city so that all of the adults supporting youth are better connected; creating more accessible, high-quality educational alternatives that serve the wide range of needs of young people in Tucson and remove the physical and structural barriers to re-engagement, such as transportation; and integrating more workforce development opportunities that address young people’s desire for career readiness training.

“The role positive relationships play in re-engaging Arizona youth is critical when it comes to the ultimate success of students,” said Stacy Skelly, vice president of corporate affairs, Pearson. “We must all work together to provide this support and make the connection between the relevance of education and the multiple pathways that exist when it comes to future workforce opportunities.”

The full report can be accessed on the America’s Promise Alliance website at This study is part of a three-year collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson through the GradNation State Activation Initiative, an initiative of the GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent.

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