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Engagement Is Empowerment

Engagement is Empowerment

A Reflection on Student Disengagement

Bailey Nelson, Corps for a Change AmeriCorps Member

While most of my students spend their weekends hanging out with friends, Katie spends her weekends sifting through the junkyard. When you walk into the auto mechanics room at school you are sure to find Katie wearing oil-stained coveralls, teaching other classmates the lesson of the day. At the beginning of the year, she made me promise I wouldn’t take her out of her auto class for any of our meetings. “This is the one thing I’m good at and the only class I like being in,” she said. I made that deal with her on the condition that she would help me figure out what the rattling was in my car. In her own words Katie is, “smarter than anyone in the garage.”

As the semester wore on Katie started missing more and more class. Her grades started to fall and the missing work piled up. The only class she consistently showed up for was Auto. When I asked Katie about her attendance she would brush it off and tell me she wasn’t good at school and didn’t need it. Katie was planning on dropping out soon to focus on auto mechanics. She could make a nice salary doing what she loves and didn’t understand why English or chemistry mattered.

I am halfway through my year of service with AmeriCorps and Colorado Youth for a Change as an Attendance Support Member. Every week I meet with a caseload of students like Katie and design 1v1 interventions on issues regarding attendance, grades, and developmental assets. My caseload consists of sophomores and juniors who finished the previous school year with a 70%-90% attendance average (in other words, considered chronically absent). I work with students of all different backgrounds and identities and see school disengagement come in all shapes and sizes.

It isn’t always easy to identify why a student has disengaged from school. No two roads towards disengagement look the same and even disengagement itself can look different once they get there. According to the Colorado Department of Education’s 2018 State Policy report,

“In Colorado, the process of dropping out is influenced by academic environment, family circumstances, social-economic issues and student performance. In GED test taker surveys, former Colorado high school students most frequently report leaving school because they weren’t happy and “did not like school.” Many left because of “missing too much school,” poor grades and study habits, and academic struggles in math and reading. They also had negative experiences with teachers, explaining that they did not get enough help or “did not get along with teachers.” Other top reasons for leaving school were tied to getting a job and/or “need[ing] money to help out at home.”

It’s important for educators, friends, and supportive adults to know the risk factors for school disengagement and what they can do to support the student. This is a multidimensional thing that requires us to look holistically at a student and their experiences. A few factors of school disengagement include: Negative school culture, Lack of school resources, Inconsistent consequences, Socio-economic status, Lack of support systems, Low attendance, Race, Gender & Sexual Orientation, Low school Engagement, Experiencing homelessness, Experiencing poverty

As an advocate for my students, it is important to give them the skills and resources they need to be engaged. During our meetings, I connect students with school-based and community services that may meet specific socio-economic or health needs. We have weekly check-ins about attendance and work on fostering positive attendance habits. Together we monitor grades and practice study skills that work for that student. To support school-engagement we find clubs, organizations, and adult mentors to strengthen the bond between the school community and the student. Another frequent activity involves working on communication with teachers and staff so the students can effectively advocate for their needs and build relationships. Helping re-build engagement in school looks different for each student and when that one student shows up after missing a week of school, you tell them how excited you are to see them and continue giving them relentless support and encouragement.

At the beginning of my service term, I didn’t know how to respond to my top-notch mechanic student, Katie. She had a plan to excel in a career she loves and help her community in a way she knew how. Why did academic engagement matter? This is a question I am constantly confronted with in all my students–a question I have sat and thought about almost every day of my service.

I think the answer comes from a place of empowerment. Katie is deserving of this education. She should demand all the tools education can give her. She is exposed to different viewpoints and taught critical thinking. Coming to class gives her a community to support and be supported by. She is given responsibility and accountability and surrounded by caring adults. It shows her she is capable of doing things outside of her comfort zone and overcoming challenges. Most importantly, she is taught how to be a life-long learner and curious about the world and the people in it.

A few weeks ago Katie was asked to stay after school to work on missing math assignments with a few other students. As I sat and tried to graph parabolas with her she slowly started to answer every question the teacher posed. I physically saw her start to sit up straighter, speak louder, and offer help to other classmates. By the end of the session, she had practically led the group in two assignments and asked if we could do this again before the next test. As we were leaving the building and saying our goodbyes she leaned over and smirked, “I was smarter than anybody in that room.” Katie is currently planning on finishing school and looking into continuing her education with RTD in Denver. In our last couple of meetings, Katie has self-identified as a “smart student” and a “great mechanic.”

This material is based upon work supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) under Grant #18AFHCO0010015. Opinions or points of view expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of, or a position that is endorsed by AmeriCorps.

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