Dropout Rate Driven by Dissatisfaction with School

A teacher is looking at examples of student art on a bulletin board in a school hallway, surrounded by young Black male students.

The dropout rate for Black male students increases dramatically from middle school to high school, and numerous studies point to Black male students’ disaffection with school at the high school level.  But what if the seeds of disaffection are planted way back during the middle school years?

That’s the question PhD Special Education student Kari Smith is exploring in her doctoral research.  As a former school social worker, she is exploring how Black male students with and without disabilities feel about school climate and school connectivity at the middle school level.

“I’m really interested in making sure we’re creating educational environments conducive to all students being able to achieve, but I’m very interested in better understanding why we have disproportionate representation of Black males in categories such as emotional disabilities,” Smith said. “I’m trying to look at understanding and creating school climate through the lens of more global issues.”

Smith is engaging in qualitative surveys with teachers who work with a wide range of students with special education needs, from students with only speech challenges to students in self-contained special education classrooms to the highest achieving special education students.

She defines school connectivity through a variety of factors:  do students feel like an adult in the building cares about their learning?  Her research explores how students are displaying the effects of connectivity—coming prepared for class, arriving on time, completing homework, participating in classroom discussions and exhibiting positive classroom behavior.

Smith says her initial results indicate as Black male students in both general education and special education settings progress through the grade levels, they tend to feel less connected with their school environment.  These initial findings complement existing research spelling out the risks facing both Black male students and all students with special education needs, who are more likely to be expelled and suspended from school.

Currently, Smith works as a special education coordinator, and from her perspective she sees the issue of building school connectivity from a whole-school level.

“Teachers area huge part of creating that, but I also think that everyone who works in a school building participates in that school climate,” Smith said. “The principal sets up the environment that a school will support every student, and that trickles down from teachers in the classroom to custodial staff, who need to connect with students like anyone else.”

Smith hopes her results will indicate whether certain groups of students feel more connected to their school environment as compared with others.  She is incorporating a study of racial and ethnic identity to examine if those identity traits serve as protective factors for students, seeking to determine if students with a strong sense of racial and ethnic identity feel more connected to the school environment.