On the frontlines of the battle between graduating and dropping out
High school graduations are about a month away. Orders for caps and gowns have been made, and party planning is well under way for many families. Around 10 percent of senior students in Michigan won't make it to that milestone this year, however, because they drop out of school. Some schools, and some teachers, guide more than their fair share of students across what is often a tightrope as kids try to balance between finishing school and whatever in their life threatens to trip them up.
Ritchie is a student trying to get to the other side of that tightrope. He is a minor and his story contains sensitive topics so we are only using his first name. When I first met Ritchie things were pretty rough for him, and they'd been rough for a while. He's 17 now, but moved out of parent’s house at the age of 15. He says he "resorted to drugs, and drinking, and more drugs" for a long time to combat a feeling of total worthlessness.
His addiction issues put him behind in school and in trouble with the law. Since he’s 17, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to jail for 60 days for minor theft. That’s when I met him. He was allowed to go to school during the day, but spent each night in jail. He says that experience was terrifying, but his attitude at the time was, frankly, pretty great. He had recently transferred to Lincoln High School, an alternative school in Owosso, designed to help kids at risk of not graduating. Ritchie was really into it.
"I sat down one day with Ms. Ross," he says. "It opened my eyes." He moved back in with his family, his grades improved, "Now I’m hopefully going to graduate this year."
Ms. Ross is Gizelle Ross. She's a para-pro which is basically a teacher support position. She and Ritchie are really close, they've known each other since he was in middle school when Ross worked in food service in the district. Ross is close with lots of Lincoln students. She says that's in part because of the flexibility of her job.
"I’m not the lead teacher," she clarifies. "So if I pull a student out, or two or three, I’m not taking away from the whole class."
She says if Ritchie is having a bad day she can always tell. "I pull him out, we talk it over, he’s fine, he’s staying in school, he did his work. He’s happy, I’m happy. We’re golden."
"We're golden" is one of Ross's catch phrases. So is "I'm good." It's like a minute-to-minute assessment of how she and everyone around her is doing. Those abilities to live in the moment, and to reassure others, are valuable in what is a very stressful job. The young people in alternative schools often have many more challenges than other kids their age.
Whatever has put them far behind in school has also likely caused some trauma.
Drawing these students out is one of Ross's specialties. Ritchie says when he first came to Lincoln, Ross would always ask him how he was doing and not be content with the typical answers of "fine" or "good." At first he said he thought that was weird, but then it worked.
"Everything just poured out," he says. "It was a big relief knowing I had support other than just my family."
There is something that seems remarkable about the relationship these two have. It took a lot for Ritchie to trust anybody associated with a school system he saw as totally uncaring. Before he came to Lincoln, he says, "I never had a teacher ask me what was wrong. Ever."
It also takes a lot for somebody in Ross's position to invest herself, over and over again, in kids with challenges and demons that she knows they won’t always successfully navigate. It takes a toll.
Recalling when Ritchie's addiction struggles were most acute she starts to cry. "I was scared for him. I was scared to death for him," she says. She adds, "I would do anything for him, to help him out".
Ross, the other teachers and administrators at Lincoln, and those at Alternative schools all across the state are easing the burden on all of us with their investment. If these kids don’t graduate, they become very expensive for all of us, as taxpayers. Ross and all the other teachers at Lincoln are on the front lines of this battle. They’re doing the work of trying to keep these kids hopeful and on track for the rest of us. And for Ritchie it worked, until it didn't.
These gains can be fragile. Ross knows that and Ritchie knows that. "I don't know how to deal with stress," he says. "My anger is horrible. I just get really emotional sometimes. This school really helps me with that. Especially Ms. Ross."
It's been about two months since I first met Ritchie. But now Ritchie is out of school again. His school respects him and his privacy so we don’t have details of what he’s struggling with, and I haven’t been able to reach him.
His school hasn’t given up on him. He has the cell phone numbers of multiple teachers and administrators at the school. They've tried reaching out to him too. Ross certainly hasn’t given up.
"I’m behind him 100 percent," she says. [This] hasn’t changed anything." When I ask Ross how she can continue to do her job and remain so positive she's honest. "I don’t know," she says. Then she adds, "I just have so much compassion for those kids".
Ritchie might be counting on that compassion when, and if, he decides to return to school. But then, so are we.