Filmmaker Finds No Quick Fix to Dropout Rate

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Frank Koughan said making the documentary “Dropout Nation,” which profiles a troubled public high school in Houston, Texas, convinced him there was no easy solution to keeping more American teens in school even if they are motivated to stay.

Koughan said the personal problems of some students at Sharpstown High School, where nearly 40 percent of students fail to graduate, were so overwhelming that he was surprised they had gotten as far as they had. He spent a semester at Sharpstown to document its efforts to keep more kids in school.

“Three-quarters of their problems were outside of school. In effect, the problems of their lives get in the way of them learning math,” he said during an interview today on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show. His film premieres Tuesday night at 9 pm on the PBS show Frontline. There also will be a live Twitter conversation under hashtag #amgrad.

The documentary tells the stories of four students struggling to stay in school under difficult circumstances. One boy worked 40 hours a week to support his family after his father was deported to Mexico. A homeless teenage mother had to figure out where to sleep and what to eat before she could think about schoolwork.

Watch Dropout Nation Preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

The film’s release is part of a public media campaign to draw attention to the country’s high dropout rate which currently sees about one in four students not finishing high school.

Koughan described other hardships faced by many students at Sharpstown High – poverty, parents with drug problems, parents in prison. A program instituted at the school two years ago to turn around the dropout rate by installing a new administration, offering more math tutoring and extending school hours was helping but couldn’t save every student, he said.

During an earlier appearance on WNYC's The Takeaway, Koughan said he saw that each student at risk of leaving school had a unique set of problems that needed to be addressed individually.

"There is no one solution. Everything is sort of tailored to the individual," Koughan said. "Something like a million kids are leaving school every year. That’s a million different situations, a million different problems and a million different potential solutions. It is an enormous, overwhelming job."

He said the responsibility to help the students fell to the school so teachers and administrators often ended up devoting their energies to working with the students on issues unrelated to teaching.

He praised the teachers, counselors and principal at Sharpstown High for their efforts to help students stay in school. “You can see in this film what a difference a small number of dedicated people can make,” Koughan said.

Listen to his full interview here.

Public media also sponsored last Saturday's American Graduate Day, a full day of multi-platform programming on the issue including a telethon on public television, a radio documentary, social media and web content, as well as outreach efforts to get more people involved. Follow the Twitter hashtag #amgrad and find out what teachers are saying about the dropout issue in this video.

The airing of "Dropout Nation" also has prompted discussion online. One listener of Koughan’s interview on The Takeaway, Larry Fisher of Brooklyn, noted that parental involvement is an important factor when talking about the dropout rate.

"When I'm in the playground with my kids, I am always aware of little kids six and seven years old who are in the playground without any parental supervision. I try my best to include them to play with my own kids, and no matter what the sport, show them how to play baseball or shoot baskets," he wrote. "As a kid, I was taught by other adults how to do things and it resonated with me throughout my life."

And "Kb from Brooklyn" said on the Lopate show page that many children are facing a lack of parental involvement and support.

"So many of these kids are coming in with 2 strikes on them. How can they succeed as students? Going back to their early childhood, are these kids being read to as toddlers? Often not even SPOKEN to very much except for disciplining--their vocabularies are significantly less developed than kids from middle class homes. There's a generational chain of teen dropout parents (and so often just the mother)in poverty with all the accompanying syndrome -- drugs, alcohol, abuse. See "The Other America" by Harrington, "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Friere. Attack the root causes of poverty!"

What do you think might help a troubled student stay in school?