Sunday Reflections: All I want for Christmas is the chance to go to college
I drive by a billboard every day that says that a teen drops out of high school every 26 seconds. I’m not sure if that is just DFW kids, or Texas kids, or on average all kids. But that’s a lot of kids – 7200 a day. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And then the other day, a librarian friend posted on FB about how a family in the library mentioned that her child couldn’t read while kind of laughing and she, the librarian, was frustrated because we sometimes see low socio-economic families who don’t value education – and I want to to talk about that.
But I want to start somewhere else. I want to start with how I ended up going to college. You see, when I was in high school we didn’t talk about going to college in my home. I didn’t fill out one single college application. I didn’t sit by my mailbox and wait for any acceptance letters. And I only took the SAT because we were required to. So one Saturday morning I rolled out of bed with a fever of 102 degrees, I trudged in to take the test and then I went home and spent the next four days in bed. My scores were – okay. I could have taken the test again, but there was no point. I didn’t need those test scores for anything. You see, we didn’t have the money for me to go to college and even though I was a good student who worked hard, this was just not something that was in my future. It was a non issue.
I obviously did end up eventually going to college, and I even went on to earn my Master’s in Library Science degree. A degree I will still be paying for when my children enter college on their own, if we can find a way to make that happen. And despite having a master’s degree and a lot of quality, professional experience, I now only work part-time. This reality keeps me up at night because my oldest daughter, now almost a teen, has started asking me how she is going to be able to pay for college and the honest answer is this: we can’t. I want more than anything to make sure that happens for both of my girls but the reality of our economic situation is that, like many Americans – even educated professionals with experience – we are living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t want a big house or a fancy car or an exotic vacation, I just want to make sure my kids are fed and have the opportunity to go to college. That’s number one on this and all future Christmas lists.
But let’s go back to the high school dropout rate. There are a lot of reasons that kids drop out of school, but one of them is poverty. You see, in many families, they aren’t planning for college just as my family didn’t. They know that college isn’t an option. They don’t value education because their parents don’t value education and didn’t instill that value in them. They don’t value education because they are too busy trying to survive; the money that college requires is so far out of reach for them that they don’t even dare to dream.
For other families, they are too busy just trying to survive the day to day to worry about the future. Many teens have to go home and take care of younger siblings while parents work two or three often part-time jobs. Or the teens themselves are working jobs to help feed the family. It’s hard to focus on school and plan for the future when you aren’t sure if there will be food on the table tonight when you get home and you have to go work to try and help make that happen.
|62 PERCENT OF HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUTS ARE UNMOTIVATEDWHAT YOU DON’T REALIZE IS THAT THE OTHER 38% ARE EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE*
“The words most associated with “dropout” are words likes “failure,” “deadbeat” and “burnout.” What you would never expect is that there’s another category of dropouts altogether. They are driven, ambitious and will stop at nothing. These are the 38% of tenth-graders in California who left high school to work. That’s right, to get a job. So why would a tenth-grader leave school for a job when they’re barely driving? Actually, they’re getting jobs to put food on the table. So many families are struggling to make ends meet that kids feel pressure to contribute.”
from School Rules.org
When I was in middle school I was friends with a girl named Patty for a brief period of time, before her family disappeared. I remember that her family was so poor that they lived downtown in a terrifying motel with cheap weekly rates and no way to make food. One day her family simply disappeared. Patty wasn’t planning prom or college, Patty was simply trying not to die. People like Patty don’t talk about going to college, they talk about how young they can get a job so they can eat.
So now I find myself a parent. I have a tween and she is smart. She works hard every day to do well in school. Right now, she thinks she wants to be a physical therapist when she grows up. But like many children around the world, she seems to realize that college is just out of reach for her. We’re not poor, not by the federal standards and not compared to many of the patrons that I serve daily at the library, but we also can’t pay for college. I can see how it could be so easy for kids everywhere who know that college isn’t in their future to not value their high school diploma. In their world, their most pressing issue isn’t getting a high school diploma in two years, it’s getting a job tomorrow to help put food on their table. These teens have no hope for their future, because they are too desperate to make it through the day. If we want to start lowering high school drop out rates, we have to be willing to make today palatable for our teens – safe, well fed, less stressful – and give them hope for a future. You can’t plan for a future you can’t even dream of.
For more information about the high school dropout epidemic, see Undroppable and Do Something.
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please?
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty
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Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does
Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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