Dropped out? No, pushed out

Being driven out of schools is a human rights issue, one that local youth activists are trying to address.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Like many 9th graders, Tiffany Burgos was excited when she entered Kensington High School for Business, Finance, and Entrepreneurship. She looked forward to her classes, relished the opportunity to study new subjects, and wanted to start the process of preparing for college.

But it wasn’t long before Burgos became disengaged. The curriculum seemed redundant – like warmed-over middle school, she said. And she became a victim of incessant bullying by a female classmate.

She complained about the bullying to the principal, who did nothing, Burgos said. In 10th grade, when she got into a fight with her tormenter, she wound up in the District’s discipline pipeline, unable to re-enter Kensington, but not assigned elsewhere due to repeated procedural delays.

So she stopped going to school at all.

Technically, Burgos is a dropout. But is she actually a “pushout?”

A national push

Nationally, there is a growing movement to reframe the dropout issue as a denial of basic human rights to millions of young people, primarily those of color in urban schools that graduate barely half their students. A campaign called Dignity in Schools (DSC), which so far includes 200 organizations, is based on the belief that “too many students are denied educational opportunities” and “are pushed out of school by degrading environments and harsh disciplinary policies that undermine their learning.”

The District’s official dropout rate still hovers around 40 percent, and students like Burgos are lining up to reclassify themselves as pushouts. The local organizing group Youth United for Change (YUC) last year created a chapter targeted specifically to this student population, and Burgos is now one of 110 members.

Dignity in Schools, which is circulating a national resolution and lobbying Congress as it works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, defines a pushout as a student who feels forced out of school not just due to harsh discipline, but because of unsupportive teachers and staff, overcrowding, lack of safety, rigid test-driven curriculum, inadequate resources, and lack of student support services.

Academic factors loom large. “There have been growing links between high-stakes testing and pushout,” said Liz Sullivan, education program director for the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative (NESRI).

According to the Advancement Project’s 2010 report Test, Punish, and Push Out: How “Zero Tolerance” and High Stakes Testing Funnel Youth Into the School-To-Prison Pipeline, the increased use of standardized tests and exit exams and the higher stakes attached to them have greatly impacted the pushout problem. Pennsylvania doesn’t have an exit exam, but is preparing to implement a series of subject tests students must pass to graduate.

Students embarrassed and discouraged because they don’t do well in school often act out until misbehavior causes them to be suspended, expelled, or referred to an alternative school. According to the report, such students are likely to get into additional trouble and fall off course academically, thus being pushed out.

“It’s such a complex problem and I think we are trying to address it on two different ends,” said Rebecca Reumann-Moore, senior research associate at Research for Action.

“It’s certainly true that there are societal issues that affect the school and those are relevant and need to be addressed. But we also have to address the transition from middle school to high school when a lot of kids are lost or start to drop out and become disengaged,” she said.

YUC organizes ‘pushouts’

Participants in YUC’s pushout chapter include youths attending alternative, accelerated, and disciplinary schools, GED programs, and reintegration programs for formerly incarcerated youth. Some are not connected to any school-based program.

Partnering with RFA, YUC is conducting a research project to determine how to address the problem. YUC members say the project was inspired by research conducted by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a coalition of Chicago-based youth organizing groups.

Members will survey out-of-school youth, and conduct interviews and focus groups to collect data about the causes of this crisis. Afterward, YUC will create a report and distribute it to the District and to community groups concerned with the dropout crisis.

Branden Williams, 18, a YUC member and student at a new alternative school called El Centro de Estudiantes, said he was pushed out of two high schools before ending up in the alternative program.

“At Thomas Edison, teachers didn’t care, man, and blew me off every time I wanted to ask questions, so … I left there and went to Overbrook for the 10th grade.”

At Overbrook, he said, he was punished for lateness by being forced to stand in a room for hours. His mother got him into Freire Charter School, but by then he was “fed up” and wanted to earn money, so he stopped going.

While pushout occurs most often during high school, it can start as early as kindergarten, and it disproportionately affects students of color, low-income children, English language learners, students with disabilities, and other disenfranchised youth, according to the Dignity in Schools campaign.

Ebony Baylis, 20, who last month earned her GED through Olney’s E3 center (one of the city’s five Education, Employment, and Empowerment centers), said she began experiencing pushout while at Lowell Elementary School.

Like Burgos, Baylis was teased. When she approached the teacher about it, she said, she was denied any support.

“After being turned down so many times, it caused me to act out and handle it on my own to make myself feel more safe in the classroom,” she said.

Baylis was suspended for fighting. She got into more trouble over the years when she took similar situations into her own hands after school staff did not help her. She was even expelled from one school and ultimately stayed out for two years before enrolling at the Olney-Logan E3 Center.

“Situations that kept happening just made it harder for me to want to be in school,” she said.

A call to action

Burgos, Williams, and Baylis decided to reconnect to school because they realized that their opportunities were severely limited without a high school diploma.

“I was hustling, but I couldn’t get no money because no job would really hire me,” Williams said.

Burgos, now five months pregnant and a student at El Centro de Estudiantes, said she wanted to set a positive example for her new baby and her little brother. And Baylis wanted the option of having a career, not just a job.

At YUC, they are participating in the research project and attend weekly meetings to discuss the chapter’s work.

Like YUC, the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) is also campaigning to prevent pushout and dropout, and has created a soundtrack containing three songs – one aptly named “Pushed Out” – and three motivational skits.

Candace Carter of PSU, one of the CD’s lead artists, said using music to spread the message was a natural choice because “we know that kids listen to music a lot so we wanted to let them know that while it’s happening all over the place, there are ways for us to stop it…. We just have to work together to do it.”

The CD, which costs $5, has been played on local radio stations and distributed to schools and at PSU chapter meetings and open mic nights. PSU has also developed a curriculum to go along with it, which they distribute to teachers.

It’s also been used as background music for school pushout videos created by the Dignity in Schools Campaign.

Since last year, more than 200 groups from 40 states have signed the DSC’s resolution, which not only defines the problem but suggests positive approaches to dealing with the epidemic.

Harold Jordan, community organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is a core member of DSC, said a national day of action on school pushout is expected to take place this fall where people nationwide will deliver the message in front of city councils, school boards, and other groups. Jordan is also a member of the Notebook’s leadership board.

“We have to recognize that kids being pushed out of school in large numbers is a bad thing in terms of the outcomes for those kids, their immediate communities, and society at large,” he said.