Changing the Narrative on High School Dropout: An Ethnography of a Nontraditional School
This study provides a counternarrative to deficit-based studies on high school dropout by focusing on factors that help students be resilient and persist to graduation in a non-traditional high school despite adversity. This study has two aims: to capture and consider students’ perceptions of risk factors that contribute to their disengagement from school and promotive factors that contribute to their engaging in a non-traditional school. Current work on high-school dropout rarely uses a lens of resiliency or includes students’ perspective to give depth of understanding to nuanced reasons students engage or disengage from school. This dissertation is an ethnographic study that includes interviews with a small group of students, teachers and school staff members and field observations in a non-traditional public high school for one academic year to understand why and how this school promotes completion for students who may otherwise have dropped out of school. In particular, I attend to how students describe the in-school and out-of-school factors that influenced their prior academic trajectories, and determine the school structures and practices at the non-traditional school that moderate these risk factors. The non-traditional school is a small school that serves approximately 135 students and offers personalized academic support, college and career readiness resources and connects students to social services when needed. I find that the school culture built around supportive student-student and student-teacher relationships and giving students freedom to express themselves, accommodating school structures such as small class sizes and well-resourced guidance counselors, and practices such as non-punitive responses to misbehavior and providing support for post-graduate plans help students remain engaged in high school and persist to graduation in this non-traditional school setting.