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Reconceptualizing Risk and High School Noncompletion: The Case of Latina/o Ninth-Grade Leavers in an Urban School

by Tara M. Brown, Alice L. J. Cook & Jesus Santos - 2019

Background: Many “dropout” studies use the concept of risk as a framework for understanding the persistent problem of high school noncompletion among students of color in urban schools. This research, which frames risks as statistical probabilities and largely focuses on static and individual risk factors, does not account for the myriad ways in which risks for school failure are produced within everyday school processes.

Purpose: This study employs a theory of risk—as indicative of uncertainty about how current circumstances impact future outcomes—that considers both objective and socially constructed dimensions of risk to understand how uncertainties about graduation arise and are negotiated within the high school context in ways that contribute to risk for, and eventuate in, school-leaving in the ninth grade.

Participants: Participants are 25 Latina/o school-leavers, 18–24 years of age, who attended the same high-poverty, high-minority urban public high school and left permanently in the ninth grade.

Research Design: Drawn from a larger participatory action research study of young adult school-leavers, study data were participants’ accounts of their schooling experiences, drawn from in-depth interviews and school policy documents. We examine these data to understand how a variety of school-specific factors and interactions between them contributed to risks for school-leaving and participants’ eventual departures from school. As guided by our framework, we analyze established risk factors and participants’ perceptions of uncertainty about school success and graduation, as related to school structures and policies, school practices, and social interactions. This includes attention to the transition from middle to high school, which prior research identifies as significant to school-leaving in the ninth grade.

Findings: Study findings indicate that, in addition to shifting expectations from eighth to ninth grade, policies, practices, and interactions among participants and high school personnel contributed to risks for school-leaving. Importantly, the ways in which uncertainties about school success were processed by individuals and through policy and practice both heightened and attenuated risk for high school noncompletion.

Conclusions: We argue that conceptualizations of risk that include its socially constructed dimensions will enhance researchers’ capacities to identify and understand the complexity of factors that contribute to school-leaving. This approach to risk also points to the need for further research on everyday school processes, the perspectives of school-leavers, and the ways schools—particularly those that serve low-income youth of color in urban communities—contribute to the problem of high school noncompletion.

I was a freshman for three years, and then I just stopped . . . I was getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again, staying back. I just didnt feel like doing it anymore. Everybody else passed the ninth grade, and I stayed back, so I was like, They could do it, but Im not going to do it. I cant. TimDog, 20

TimDog is among tens of thousands of students in the United States each year whose high school careers come to a disappointing end in the ninth grade. More youth who leave high school before graduating depart in the ninth grade than in any other grade (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009), and, like TimDog, many have made multiple attempts to complete freshman year. Given, ninth gradersespecially Latina/os and Blacksdisproportionately high rates of retention and school-leaving (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015; Warren, Hoffman, & Andrew, 2014), their school challenges are a topic of particular concern for educational researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners.

Like many Latina/o ninth-grade leavers, TimDog and the other participants in this study had multiple risk factors for high school noncompletion. They attended a high-poverty urban public high school. They skipped school, failed courses, and were retained. All these factors are positively correlated with noncompletion (Rumberger, 2011). There is more, however, to these young peoples processes of leaving school. By their accounts, the schools policies, practices, and social environment impeded their success. Some school personnel violated school policy to their detriment and were inattentive and unsupportive. Although some teachers worked to keep them connected to school, their efforts were overtaken by a maelstrom of obstacles. Although the participants sometimes felt hopeful, they also experienced despair and, finally, resignation. These factors, which often go unrecognized in statistical analyses of risk for school-leaving, contributed to their departures from school.

Drawing on school policy documents and interviews with 25 Latina/o ninth-grade leavers, this study examines their processes of leaving school through the lens of risk. Broadly speaking, risk refers to relationships between uncertainty and activities, events, and outcomes and how current circumstances impact future circumstances, where something of human value is at stake (Aven & Renn, 2009, p. 2). The notion of risk, as a prevalent concept for explaining high school noncompletion, is primarily defined by statistical research. Although qualitative researchers have shown that statistical risk factors fail to capture many conditions that contribute to school-leaving (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009b; Fine, 1991; Lukes, 2013), they have yet to propose a theory of risk that more fully accounts for students everyday experiences of leaving school.

This study draws on the social arena concept of risk (Renn, 1992b) which considers both objective dimensions of risk, in which uncertainties are expressed as probabilities, and constructivist dimensions, which capture social constructions and lived experiences of risk, reflecting a critical realist (Beck, 1999; Maxwell, 2013; Tulloch, 2008) perspective of risk. Through this lens, we examine how uncertainties about graduation arise and are negotiated through policies, practices, and social interactions in the high school context in ways that contribute to risk for, and eventuate in, school-leaving in the ninth grade. In doing so, we provide an empirical warrant for expanding common conceptualizations of risk for high school noncompletion in ways that extend beyond students individual characteristics and include a variety of in-school conditions and social actors. We argue that accounting for objective and constructivist dimensions of risk will help researchers to better identify the role schools play in noncompletion, facilitate conceptual cohesion between quantitative and qualitative research, and foster more comprehensive understandings of school-leaving. Such enhanced understandings are particularly important in the case of Latina/o and other racially/ethnically minoritized youth, who are among the most likely to leave high school in the ninth grade.


Qualitative research on ninth-grade leavers and studies of any kind on Latina/o ninth-graders is extremely scarce. Given these gaps, we review research on ninth graders and on the perspectives of school-leavers more generally, and we highlight findings pertaining to Latina/os where available. This review is organized around three prominent, school-related risk factors in research on school-leaving in the ninth grade:  academic failure, absenteeism, and suspension.


One of the most significant predictors of high school noncompletion is poor academic outcomes, both during and before freshman year. In the districtwide Philadelphia Education Longitudinal Study (PELS), Neild, Balfanz, and Herzog (2009) found that students who failed English or mathematics in sixth grade had at least a three in four chance of dropping out of high school (p. 51) within six years. Further, students retained in middle school are likely to be over-age (Rumberger, 2011, p. 164) in high school, which also is a predictor of school-leaving. Thus, middle school students with course and grade failures are considered at risk for poor academic outcomes in ninth grade. However, research shows ninth graders without these prior difficulties also may struggle academically, which has been attributed to the eighth-to-ninth-grade transition, marked by institutional shifts from middle to high school.

Ninth graders often have difficulties adjusting to the policies, practices, and expectations in high school (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009; Pharris-Ciurej, Hirschman, & Willhoft, 2012; Roybal, Thornton, & Usinger, 2014). As compared with middle school, incoming freshmen face more rigorous schoolwork, are expected to take more responsibility for their learning, and for the first time have to earn passing grades in core courses (McCallumore & Sparapani, 2010, p. 447) and earn credits to be promoted. First-year ninth graders report difficulty keeping track of credits and assignments and managing workloads as well as confusion about attendance requirements (Butts & Curxeiro, 2005; Hazel, Pfaff, Albanes, & Gallagher, 2014; Roybal et al., 2014), which can lead to course failures and credit deficits that are difficult to redress in subsequent years. The PELS study revealed that among ninth-grade leavers, including those who had been enrolled in ninth grade for two or more years, Eighty-eight percent had earned no more than three credits during their entire time in high school (Neild, Stoner-Eby, & Furstenberg, 2008, p. 552).

Ninth-grade failure is especially prevalent in urban schools whose student populations are predominantly Latina/o, Black, and low income. In such schools with the lowest graduation rates in 2004, 40% of students failed ninth grade (Balfanz & Letgers, 2004). Most ninth-grade leavers have repeated freshman year; only a small minority leave school during or directly after their first year. The majority leave in their second freshman year; about one third persist for three or more years (Neild et al., 2008). Each retention exponentially increases their chances of leaving, and most ninth-grade repeaters do not graduate (Balfanz & Letgers, 2004).

Several studies suggest the eighth-to-ninth-grade transition is more difficult for and has a greater negative effect on graduation for Latina/os than for Whites or Blacks (Akos & Galassi, 2004; Pharris-Ciurej et al., 2012). Research with Latina/o school-leavers indicates that poor relationships with school staff also contribute to their school difficulties (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009; Lukes, 2013; Rodríguez, 2013). This finding is consistent with other research showing that relationships with school staff are particularly important for Latina/o students academic achievement (De Jesús & Antróp-González, 2006; Irizarry & Raible, 2011; Valenzuela, 1999). In qualitative studies, Latina/o school-leavers consistently report feeling that school personnel do not care about them. They also cite unchallenging and culturally unresponsive curricula, lack of academic and social support, low expectations, and disrespect as reasons why they became disconnected from school (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009; Hernandez & Nesman, 2004; Lukes, 2013; Luna & Revilla, 2013). Some researchers argue that Latina/o students are often pushed out of school by conditions that communicate that they are unwanted and cannot be successful, and others suggest school personnel sometimes more directly exclude them from school.

Lukes (2013) recently conducted a study of 149 Latina/o immigrant youth in New York City. These study participants, 1524 years of age, were not enrolled in and had not completed high school. Study participants who had not aged out of the public school system reported being denied admittance to high schools because they were too old; others who enrolled said they were later told to leave because of academic difficulties. These findings are reflective of an earlier study on New York high schools in which Gotbaum and York (2002) found that in order to keep performance levels up, principals across the state were employing a variety of strategies to push at-risk or low performing students out of school (p. 6). Although how many ninth-grade leavers are discharged for academic reasons is unknown, ninth-grade repeaters, who are typically both low-performing and over-age, may be particularly susceptible to this form of exclusion.

In research literature on ninth-grade leavers, the contention that they find the rigor of schoolwork deeply frustrating, and . . . simply give up (Neild, 2009, p. 61) is typically proposed as the link between academic difficulties and school-leaving. In studies on their perspectives, school-leavers also report resignation to academic failure but indicate that academic discouragement among school-leavers is connected to interactions with school personnel. Although researchers who study ninth graders acknowledge the importance of student-staff relationships to academic achievement, little empirical research addresses how these relationships impact school success and failure and persistence and attrition in the ninth grade.


Like academic failure, absenteeism in middle and high school increases the likelihood that a student will not graduate. Analysis of the PELS data showed students with attendance rates below 80% in the sixth grade had a 25% chance of completing high school (Neild et al., 2009). This finding suggests that middle school attendance patterns carry over into high school, where the academic repercussions for absenteeism are more severe. For ninth graders, even a moderate number of absences is predictive of school-leaving. For example, a districtwide study of ninth graders in Chicago Public Schools found that only 63 percent of students who missed about one week (five to nine days) graduated in four years (Allensworth & Easton, 2007, p. 6).

In explaining absenteeism, Neild et al. (2008) noted that ninth graders have greater autonomy than in middle school, and large high schools provide abundant opportunities for skipping class to roam school hallways (p. 548). Similarly, in a national study of 467 school-leavers, nearly 40% reported having too much freedom and not enough rules (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Burke Morison, 2006, p. iv) as reasons for missing school. Students freedom is enhanced by institutional disorganization that is common in high-poverty urban high schools where overcrowding and understaffing impede schools ability to track and curb student absences (Balfanz, Bridgeland, et al., 2014; Luna & Revilla, 2013). Research on youth perspectives also cites the quality of learning experiences and relationships with teachers as contributing to absences. In a study of 106 predominantly Latina/o and Black high school students, participants reported cutting classes in which they had a poor relationship with the teacher or found the curriculum and instruction to be irrelevant or unengaging (Fallis & Opotow, 2003). The authors described this selective cutting as a form of resistance to demeaning classroom conditions, which, research suggests, are experienced by many Latina/o high school students (Irizarry & Raible, 2011; Valenzuela, 1999).

Because absences from high school can lead to course and grade failure, researchers advocate for better tracking of student attendance. Research also indicates that students attendance patterns are related to school-specific factors. However, little empirical research has examined the nature of these relationships or identified the ways that schools and school personnel may contribute to students absences. This knowledge is especially important in the case of low-income, minoritized ninth graders, given their disproportionately high rate of absenteeism (Balfanz, 2013) and its effect on academic failure, and school-leaving.


Most research on the link between school discipline and school-leaving in the ninth grade focuses on out-of-school suspension in high school. However, the PELS (Neild et al., 2009) study, mentioned earlier, found that 75% of sixth-graders with a final unsatisfactory behavior mark in at least one class (p. 51) did not complete high school. The reason for this pattern is unclear; it may be that disciplinary troubles in middle school persist and result in suspension in high school. According to Balfanz, Byrnes, and Fox (2014), being suspended in the 9th grade greatly diminishes a students odds of graduating (p. 16) because it results in lost learning time, contributes to academic difficulties, and can fracture student-staff relationships (Brown, 2007). Ninth graders are more likely to be suspended than students in higher grades (Balfanz, Byrnes, & Fox, 2014; Cohen & Smerdon, 2009), and Latina/o and, especially, Black students have higher rates of suspension than Whites or Asians (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014).

Some researchers attribute ninth graders disproportionately high suspension rates to developmental factors, such as inadequate problem-solving skills, impulsivity, and a tendency to respond to stressors with disruptive behaviors (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009; Pharris-Ciurej et al., 2012). This link between age and behavior suggests that over-age ninth graders would have fewer disciplinary troubles; on the contrary, they are suspended at higher rates than on-track students (Balfanz, Byrnes, & Fox, 2014). Researchers have found that some school administrators use disciplinary exclusion to push over-age, low-performing students out of school (Bridgeland et al., 2006; Gotbaum & York, 2002), and racial/ethnic bias among school personnel also contributes to Latina/o and Black students disproportionate rates of suspension (Balfanz, Byrnes, & Fox, 2014; Losen, 2015; Skiba, 2001). Although nationally, Latina/os suspension rates are proportionate to their population in the K12 public school system, they are disproportionately suspended in some states (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). For example, in the state in which this study was conducted, the out-of-school suspension rate for Latina/os was more than three times the state average.


In the research literature on ninth graders, school-leaving is primarily attributed to students behavioral and academic difficulties that negatively affect their adjustment from middle school to high school. This adjustment appears to be particularly troublesome for students who have difficulties in middle school; they are deemed at risk for high school noncompletion before they even enter ninth grade. Largely unexamined is how school factors contribute to, rather than simply foreground, ninth graders school difficulties. Also, as compared with studies on first-year freshmen, there is little research on ninth-grade repeaters. Although repeaters represent the majority of ninth-grade leavers, they are often excluded from studies on ninth graders school difficulties because of emphases on the eighth-to-ninth-grade transition. Addressing such gaps in knowledge about how and why students leave school in the ninth grade requires further research on the processes through which students schooling experiences become connected to their departures from school.


Although the concept of risk is commonly used in research on school failure, it is seldom situated within existing theories of risk in the social sciences. As noted earlier, these theories reflect two overarching approaches: objective and constructivist. In education, conceptualizations of risk primarily are rooted in the field of epidemiologythe study of the causes and prevalence of health outcomes in particular populations (Bialostok & Whitman, 2012). Consistent with this research, the majority of dropout studies take an objective approach, also called the realist perspective (Zinn, 2008, p. 4), in which risks are expressed as probabilities based on statistical correlations between high school graduation and other variables that characterize individual, institutional, or contextual factors (Balfanz & Letgers, 2004; Rumberger, 2011). These studies often draw on large, representative participant samples to calculate average probabilities over space, time and context (Renn, 1992a, p. 58), which can be generalized to broad populations.

Objective risk research tends to take an individualist position (Denny, 2005, p. 14) in which risks are conceptually tethered to individuals or groups who are considered at risk. As such, studies on risk for dropout focus largely on students traits, behaviors, and academic outcomes (Balfanz, Bridgeland, et al., 2014; Knesting, 2008). The identification of individual risk factors is very helpful in determining the scope of high school noncompletion and making predictions about which students are likely to leave school. However, some researchers express concern that these analyses frame students (and families) as primarily responsible for noncompletion and obscure the role of schools in school-leaving (Bickerstaff, 2010; Brown & Rodríguez, 2009b; Luna & Revilla, 2013). Rumberger and Rodríguez (2011) noted that identifying the specific school factors that affect student achievement presents some methodological challenges (p. 85) for quantitative research. These challenges reflect the limitations of objective approaches in pinpointing factors that are not easily quantified or disentangled (Rumberger, 2011) and capturing social processes through which risks emerge and become connected to particular outcomes (Renn, 1992a).

Constructivist approaches to risk focus on how individuals experience uncertainty about and severity of the consequences (or outcomes) of an activity (Aven & Renn, 2009, p. 1). From this perspective, risks are not objective truths, nor do they belong to individuals. Rather, risks are artifacts of social processes whose significance lies in how people experience them in their everyday lives. Constructivist risk researchers seek to understand how and why uncertainties around particular potentialities emerge for individuals or groups, how they respond and to what effect, and how institutional and sociocultural conditions shape those responses and their implications (Burgess, 2015; Douglas, 2013; Renn, 1992a; Wilkinson, 2001). Focusing on socially situated experiences, constructivist risk researchers often employ qualitative methods with participant samples that are relatively small and contextually bound.

Few, if any, studies have used constructivist concepts of risk to understand high school noncompletion. However, many qualitative studies are aligned with such concepts in their focus on school-leavers perceptions and experiences. These studies provide valuable insights into processes and individual experiences of school-leaving particularly as shaped by school policies, practices, and climates. However, most are not generalizable because of small participant samples and contextual specificity. Moreover, although qualitative researchers often draw on findings from statistical risk analyses to contextualize their studies and frame their populations of focus as at risk, they rarely explain or directly engage with the concept of risk.

The strengths and limitations of qualitative and quantitative research on school-leaving reflect those that characterize the two overall approaches to risk. As Renn (1992b) described,

objective concepts, which focus on real consequences of action, fail to include the symbolic meanings and interpretations of events and consequently miss the variety of social constructions associated with the same real event. Constructivist approaches, on the other hand, are likely to be drawn into the maelstrom of total relativism with no anchor for basic comparison. (p. 179)

Renn (1992b) integrated these two approaches, reflecting a critical realist perspective of risk. In doing so, he proposed the social arena concept of risk (SACR) (p. 180) as a framework for understanding how people experience risk as both socially constructed and an objective property of a hazard or event (Renn, 2011, p. 156) independent of their perceptions. The present study draws on the SACR.


The SACR is based on Mazzonis (1991) arena model (p. 115) for understanding how stakeholder groups influence policy-making processes. An arena refers to the political actions of all social actors involved in a specific issue (Renn, 1992b, p. 181), which occur within particular decision sites (Mazzoni, 1991, p. 116) defined by rules and conventions that shape actors actions and interactions. The arena model highlights how groups negotiate conflicting interests within decision sites to advance their policy objectives (for more on the arena model, see Fowler, 2006, and Malen, 2001). Based on the arena model, the SACR is designed to investigate how issues pertaining to risk are experienced and negotiated, particularly in policy arenas. Of concern in the SARC and theories of risk, more generally, is the inequitable distribution of risk or chances for harm (Hayenhjelm, 2011, p. 912) across social groups involved in a specific risk issue, which often reflects power relations among them.

The SACR situates experiences of risk within stages (Renn, 1992b, p. 181), which are institutional contexts constitutive of broader arenas in which risks issues are negotiated. The stage demarcates the context, rules, principal actors, and social processes under investigation. Within a stage, the social experience of risk is shaped by interrelationships between: (1) formal and informal rules, (2) risk information, and (3) risk processing among social actors and its outcomes. The framework for the present study is organized around these aspects of the SACR.

Similarly to Aven and Renn (2009), in this study, we conceptualize risk as referring to uncertainty and its relationship to circumstances, activities, and events, and their consequences. We use the terms risk (for school-leaving) and uncertainty (about graduation) interchangeably. In the present study, the central risk issue is school-leaving, which describes both processes and events of leaving high school before graduating, and the high school that participants attended is the stage. Ideally, a school-based study using the SACR would capture the experiences of all principal actors within the stagestudents, school personnel, and parentsas they unfold, using multiple types of data. However, because empirical data for this study are limited to interviews with school-leavers, our analyses privilege their perspectives and experiences.

Social experiences and objective properties of risk are impacted by formal and informal stage rules. Formal rules are those officially encoded and monitored; in this study, they include school policies. Informal rules are learned and developed in the process of interactions among actors (Renn, 1992b, p. 182). These rules include normative school practices or patterns of behavior and interactions among students and school personnel. Stage rules shape the nature of circumstances, activities, events, and their consequences within the stage, which are sources of risk information (Renn, 1992b, p. 179) that signal uncertainty related to the risk issue. We view circumstances as ongoing conditions or states of being, activities as ordinary or routine occurrences that can vary in duration, and events as short-term incidents of particular significance to those involved or others (e.g., researchers). Last, consequences are the results of circumstances, activities, and events. Given prior research, we are particularly interested the events of course and grade failure and disciplinary action, the activity of skipping school, the condition of being a ninth-grade repeater, and how the stage rules in high school, especially as different from those in middle school, impact participants experiences.

Central to the SACR is the processing of risk-related information (Jaeger, Renn, Rosa, & Webler, 2001, p. 171)social actors iterative processes of detecting, understanding, and responding to uncertainty. Actors detection of risk initiates them into risk processing, which occurs within social interactions that can heighten or attenuate individual and social perceptions of risk and shape risk behavior (Renn, 2011, p. 154). For instance, a students failing grades may signal uncertainty about graduation. In response, the student and his teachers might work together to improve his grades, mitigating this uncertainty. Both social interactions and risk processing are shaped by the stage rules and the actions of rule enforcing agen[ts] (Renn, 1992b, p. 193) who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that actors abide by the formal rules (Renn, 1992b, p. 193); in the present study, these agents are school administrators. Our study participants departures from school mark their disengagement from risk processing within the stage; understanding the factors that contribute to and processes that eventuate in this consequence is the ultimate goal of applying the SACR to this study.

Given our data, this study primarily takes a constructivist approach to risk from the perspectives of, and through a secondary analysis of interviews with, former students. However, we consider statistical risk factors as real consequences of action (Renn, 1992b, p. 179) that indicate risk and school policies as objective properties of the stage, which provide anchors for connecting objective and socially constructed dimensions of risk.


This study is guided by two research questions: (1) What factors contribute to uncertainties about graduation among the participants, and how do they influence participants perceptions? and (2) How are uncertainties, as processed through social interactions, related to participants departures from school?

This article uses interview data from a larger study of young adults without a secondary degree residing in a predominantly Latina/o city in New England that we call Newhope. The study used a community-based, participatory research approach in which representatives of the population under investigation act as co-researchers (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009a, p. 1). The research team includes the principal investigator (PI), a coauthor of this article, and three Latino young men from Newhope who left high school before graduating, one of whom is also a coauthor of this article. The PI recruited the community researchers from local organizations and trained them in the theoretical and empirical, and ethical aspects of the study; they participated in the study design, data collection and analysis, and the dissemination of study findings.


At the time of data collection in 20112012, 90% of Newhope High School (NHS) students were Latina/o, three quarters spoke Spanish as their first language, and 90% received free or reduced lunch. NHS served more than 3,000 students, 50% of whom would not graduate from high school; less than half of 10th graders were proficient in English and mathematics. During data collection, the entire Newhope public school district (NPS) went into state receivership because of persistently poor performance; in the 10 years since they were established, none of the NPS schools had met the states annual yearly progress benchmarks for any subgroup.

In this article, we use data from 25 interviewees who reported leaving NHS in the ninth grade. All were Latina/o (16 Puerto Rican and nine Dominican) 18- to 24-year-olds. Six participants migrated to the United States mainland before the age of 10; seven identified Spanish as their first language. The sample consisted of six women and 19 men. Several factors contributed to this gender disparity. First, there were more 18- to 24-year-old men than women without a secondary degree in Newhope (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Also, the educational, employment, and corrections programs from which interviewees were recruited served more men than women. The PI contacted several organizations (focused on domestic violence, homelessness, and teen parenting) that specifically served at risk young women but was denied access because of confidentiality concerns.


The PI and one community researcher conducted one semistructured interview, lasting 90 minutes to 2 hours, with each interviewee at either the program site from which she or he was recruited or the Newhope public library. Based on the research questions guiding the broader study, interview topics included K12 schooling, employment, and criminal justice involvement. Because of illegal activity among the target population, the PI obtained a waiver of informed consent to protect participants identities. Participants were informed, verbally and in writing, of study risks and expectations but did not sign a consent form. They chose their own pseudonyms and were compensated for their participation with a $20 Visa gift card.

In this article, we draw on data pertaining to K12 schooling and participants high school experiences. Interviews included inquiries into participants overall perceptions of NHS, their academic performance, attendance, experiences of teaching and learning, and interactions with school personnel to understand the processes through which participants became disconnected from school. All participants were asked each question in the protocol, and interviewers posed follow-up questions to elicit details about their responses. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim by an outside transcription service, and the interviewers read each transcript while listening to the interview audio to ensure accuracy.

For this article, we also analyzed five policy documents pertaining to NHSthe NPS attendance policy, academic requirements, student discipline code, and staff code of conduct and the state compulsory attendance requirementsto determine the formal rules of the school stage. The policies outlined in these documents were consistent from 2004 to 2012, the timeframe in which interviewees had attended and left NHS.


Given the relatively small participant sample size, study findings are not generalizable to all ninth-grade leavers but may be transferable to the experiences of ninth-grade leavers in similar school contexts. The largely male sample does not lend itself to gender analyses, and our data provide little insight into how race/ethnicity may have impacted participants everyday schooling experiences. Further, language and immigration status, which have been identified in prior research as obstacles to graduation for Latina/os, were not salient in our data. The primary significance of ethnicity in this study may lie in how Latina/os are often relegated to poor schooling conditions (Irizarry & Raible, 2011). Because our study relies on self-report, we cannot verify the events that participants recounted. However, consistencies across their descriptions of their schooling conditions and experiences lend credence to their accounts.


This article drew on a secondary analysis of study data and included two stages of data analysis. In the first stage, the four research team members coded the same three transcripts using a preliminary list of, primarily, descriptive codes based on the studys research questions and prior research. For example, they coded deductively for academic support, leaving school, current employment, and crime. Inductive and analytic codes, such as respect and academic discharge, were also developed based on participants reports of their schooling experiences. To ensure conceptual consistency, researchers employed a constant comparative analysis (Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014), comparing incidents or segments of text associated with each code to identify their similarities and differences. In doing so, the team arranged the data in matrices to look across incidents in order to clarify the properties and dimensions of each code (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). As a result, some codes were kept intact, and others were collapsed, delineated more precisely, or eliminated. For example, academic support was delineated to distinguish between familial and school support. The PI and one local researcher then recoded the transcripts based on the revised code list. Through this analysis, the research team identified a subset of codes and data pertaining to participants experiences at NHS.

Next, we (the coauthors) conducted theoretical coding to organize data around the three areas of focus in our framework: (1) school rules, (2) sources of risk information, and (3) risk processing. In the first area, we used policy documents to identify formal rules pertaining to students behaviors and academic performances and used interview data to ascertain school conditions and normative school practices. For example, nearly all participants reported that NHS did not contact parents about their absences, which we identified as a normative practice. In both policy documents and interview data, we looked for evidence of consistencies and discrepancies between policies and practices at NHS and how differences in stage rules between middle and high school impacted participants experiences. In the second area, risk information, we identified data pertaining to statistical risk factors for noncompletion, and events, activities, and circumstances that signaled uncertainty about graduation for participants. We examined relationships between sources of risk information, school policies and practices, and the third area of focus: risk processing. Data pertaining to risk processing included how participants detected, made meaning of, and responded to uncertainty about school failure, particularly in the context of formal and informal school rules and their interactions with school personnel.

In identifying patterns in the data, within and across participants, we developed four categories associated with risk information: staff supervision and support, academic and social expectations, hope and discouragement about graduation, and discharge from school. We examined relationships among these categories to build understandings of participants processes of school-leaving, their contributing factors, and how those factors eventuated in their departures from school. Aspects of these processes were strikingly similar across participants, particularly at the nexus of academic failure and absenteeism, as mediated by lack of staff support and discouragement about graduation. Differences at participants points of departure highlighted the influence of normative practices, school policies, and the power and actions of rule enforcers.


In this section, we organize study findings chronologically, rather than thematically, to avoid extracting particular aspects of experience from interrelationships that contribute to their meaning. Further, to build understanding of participants processes of school-leaving and how various aspects of risk became connected over time, is it helpful to depict how their experiences unfolded, from entering through departing high school. Findings are reported in three subsectionsstaging, processing, and eventuating risk. The first subsection focuses on participants initial entry into NHS and the formal and informal stage rules, particularly as compared with middle school, and participants responses to them. The second subsection more intently examines how participants processed uncertainties about graduation through their interactions with school personnel and the consequences of those processes. The third subsection focuses on participants departures from school as the eventuation of risk processing. Each subsection connects the findings to the four identified themes and to risk for school-leaving.


Upon entering NHS, participants found themselves in a significantly larger school with a student population more than six times greater than their middle schools. By their accounts, the building was disorderly and unsafe; they described NHS as overcrowded, hectic, crazy, distracting, a jungle, and a zoo. They recalled numerous students skipping classes, roaming the hallways, disrupting classes in session, and attending lunch periods to which they were not assigned. Erica noted that the building afforded students a lot of places to hide from security; nearly all participants said that the relatively small number of security guards, some of whom were derelict in their duties, routinely ignored students who were out of class and who left the building during the school day. Describing the disorder at NHS, Andy said, They [school personnel] didnt have any control over students. People, they skipped if they wanted to skip. They didnt have no order. Yeah, everybody was just doing their own thing. If you go to school, thats up to you. If not, whatever. This depiction of NHS contrasts with how participants described middle school as a structured environment where class attendance was mandatory, and you cant get away with stuff.

In their first semester of ninth grade, seven study participants were among those cutting class. For example, J. R. said, It was so easy to leave [school], and it became fun. I guess I just fed into that. . . . The doors are open? Oh, we could just skip? Lets go! Lack of homeschool communication contributed to the ease with which students skipped school and classes. Although parents were supposed to be notified about students unexcused absences per the NHS discipline code, participants said the school rarely, if ever, informed their parents of their absences. Luis, who said he skipped school for two months, lamented, They couldve sent a letter to my house, called my mom or something, somebody that cared for me. Yeah, support me or step me up. Like Luis, most participants regretted both their absences and staff members inattention to their whereabouts, which they saw as lack of care.

In the context of inadequate adult oversight, interviewees also faced stringent academic penalties for absences. NPS had no policies linking attendance to academic outcomes before the ninth grade. In high school, however, students with more than nine absences from a class in a year (or more than four in the first semester, or five in the second semester) were subject to course failure.1 Thus, academic sanctions for skipping class were harsher in high school than in middle school, while opportunities to cut classes were greater. Contributing to these opportunities, the state compulsory education law relieved schools of responsibility for enforcing attendance among students over the age of 15. According to the study participants, any attempts by NHS administrators to contact their parents regarding absences ceased altogether once they turned 16.

Participants also faced higher academic expectations and more severe consequences for failure upon entering high school. As reflected in prior research, they described a significant increase in both the amount and rigor of coursework in ninth grade, as compared with middle school. Whereas only six participants reported prior academic difficulties, nearly all said they struggled in their first year of high school. For example, Jerome, who entered ninth grade as an on-track 15-year-old, described being overwhelmed by the increased difficulty of his coursework.

I was a good student back in the eighth grade, but why cant I cope with the things they giving me now? Basically, I feel overwhelmed with all the things that theyre bringing me . . . I dont know like half the things theyre talking about. Like, nobody wants to sit down and explain it to me. What am I supposed to do?

Ninth grade was also the first year that NPS students were required to pass particular courses to be promoted to the next grade. According to district policy, NHS students who failed English or two core courses (i.e., science or math) were retained. For participants, promotion became increasingly uncertain over the course of their first year of high school; nearly all reported academic difficulties and, like Jerome, inadequate academic support.

Participants reported that the majority of teachers at NHS demonstrated a lack of investment in student learning, as described by Anna and Billy.

Anna: [NHS] was really bad. The teachers dont really even care if you want to learn or not. They just will give you the work. If you learn or not learn, its whatever to them.

Billy: [Teachers] would just pass out papers and be like, Do it. So I wasnt learning. I was just lost the whole time. So Ill do it and Ill get an F, obviously, because I dont know what Im doing. They werent teaching. They were just handing out papers.

Data also suggest that overcrowding and disruptions both inside and outside the classroom contributed to participants academic difficulties and to teachers lack of capacity to respond to their problems. For example, Jessie said, I couldnt concentrate. There was so many people, too many kids, too many of us in the same room . . . so it was hard for us to learn. Likewise, Daren said, It was like everybody was together so I couldnt concentrate. There was a lot of distraction. Just like, its a lot fist-fights, if its not the fist-fights its arguments. Thus, participants reported that, as with attendance, their ability to meet academic expectations was negatively impacted by school disorder and lack of support from school personnel.

In transitioning into ninth grade, participants experienced more stringent academic and attendance requirements and greater sanctions for not meeting them. Concomitantly, they faced higher expectations for governing their own movements and taking responsibility for their learning in a disordered school environment marked by inadequate control and oversight over students. Data strongly suggest that most participants were unprepared to manage these institutional conditions in ways that fostered success and that they did not receive the staff support that would enable them to do so. These formal and informal rules contributed to the likelihood that participants would skip classes and struggle academically. All the interviewees reported that, upon entering ninth grade, they fully expected to complete high school. Within several months, however, they began to recognize their academic difficulties and absences as risks for noncompletion.


For the participants, course and grade failure signaled uncertainties about graduation, and absenteeism was both a cause of and response to failure. The seven interviewees who began skipping in the first term experienced course failure early on. The remaining 18 said they began skipping only after realizing the likelihood of failure. Explaining why she began skipping algebra, Erica said, I didnt feel smart enough. Math, I didnt feel confident enough that I could have done it. Although TimDog liked school at the beginning of year, towards the middle, he recalled, it got a lot harder and harder so, like, I know I couldnt pass. So I just stopped doing anything. Bob said that difficulties with coursework, in combination with lack of teacher support, negatively impacted his motivation and influenced his decision to skip.

If you go somewhere that you dont want to be, youre not going to perform the way you want to, you get me? Youre not going to put in full effort. . . I felt like they didnt care about me. So, you know, some days I would wake up and not even feel like going to school and sometimes, like, I wont.

Over the course of the first year, the academic risk of skipping became more salient for participants. Some employed strategies to manage this risk, such as being present when the days attendance was taken and trying to keep up with schoolwork. Mike exploited the rotating schedule and multiple lunch periods to avoid accruing too many absences in any one class:

Say one week, Ill be in school every day but I leave after first lunch, you know what Im saying? But since the schedule changes, like you start with a different class every day, by the end of the week, Ive been through every class. So Im participating and Im good in every single class, but Ill be missing, like, four classes every day.

Although participants knew attendance was expected, they did not appear to fully understand the academic consequences of absences, particularly as related to individual classes. In missing four classes each week, Mike quickly exceeded the number of permitted absences in his core courses. Lee expressed confusion about why he earned no credits for classes he sometimes skipped, saying, I didnt make no credits, and every time I went to school I did my work. And I dont know how I got zero credits. All the participants failed at least one core course because of absences in their first year of ninth grade. For some, like Lee, there was no administrative response; they continued to attend class (albeit not regularly), unaware that they had no chance of passing. Others simply stopped attending classes they knew they could not pass; several described being removed from classes and placed in a study hall for the remainder of the year with no way to make up lost credits.

By second semester, the majority of participants had already failed for the year, and the remainder were in imminent danger of failing. Most were caught in a cycle of academic, attendance, and morale troubles. They responded to uncertainties about graduation by divesting both physically and emotionally, cultivating feelings of dislike and apathy toward school and avoiding classes, which exacerbated their troubles. The further behind they fell in their schoolwork, the lower their morale, and the less they wanted to attend classesand the less they did so.

The majority of participants said that they sought help at some point, but most felt frustrated in their efforts. However, eight recalled a staff member who intervened in their mounting troubles in a meaningful way. For example, Garys English teacher helped him get on track after he started skipping school to work so he could support his daughter. He said,

She seen what I was going through . . . she said, Hey listen. I want you to pass this class. I want you to stay until you finish everything. She used to keep me after school until I finished all the work. Yeah, she didnt want me to fail. . . . She always stayed on my back. I passed the [high school exit exam] because of that lady.

When Jazere did not show up to school, a gang unit officer who worked at NHS came to his house to pick him up. Jerome had an English teacher who forgave some of his absences, called him when he missed class, and brought him work when he was suspended. He was the only teacher that really cared if I got a high school education, Jerome recalled. Other teachers appeared unwilling to support Mr. Murphys efforts. As Jerome explained, [My English teacher] would go to the other teachers to get my work, and theyll tell him they dont even know why hes always going out on a limb for me because Im not worth it.

Intervention by a single staff member helped these eight participants stay connected to school, progress academically, and cultivate desperately needed hope that their circumstances could improve. However, a multitude of contravening factors worked against the efforts of these adults, which, study data suggest, were contrary to normative practices at NHS; these factors included a general lack of accountability for students whereabouts and the dearth of means for students to make up for prior absences.

Overall, respondents felt that they were left to solve their problems (or not) on their own. Feeling largely powerless to improve their chances of graduating without more support, some registered their frustration by challenging teachers authority. Judy and Jenny described being defiant and disruptive in classes where they felt teachers did not care about them. Mike said he deliberately made class difficult for such teachers:

If I know that you dont want me there then Im going to make your day go as bad as I can just because you dont care anymore. Why should I make it go good for you and sit there and do my work and stay quiet when you dont even want me here?

Others described walking out of the classrooms of, and talking back to, teachers who would downgrade, disrespect, and talk down to them. Such responses often resulted in disciplinary actions that took time away from learning and exacerbated their academic troubles.

Over time, fewer and fewer participants remained in school. About half of the 25 returned for a second freshman year; four came back for a third; and one participant, Alex, attended ninth grade four years in a row. For the ninth-grade repeaters, attending classes with younger students was a source of embarrassment. As Rafy, who had already been retained in elementary and middle school, recalled, I was the oldest one in the class, with all these young kids . . . they made it seem like I was the slowest one in the class.

With mounting failures and disciplinary sanctions, fragile hopes of graduating dissipated, and many participants felt that teachers were also giving up hope. As Alex explained,

I took Algebra I for four years in a row, and I never learned a thing . . . I felt like I used to just go to school every day and just sleep because the teachers, after a while, they just gave up. So Im like, You know what? Ill give up too.

Likewise, Anna said that by her third year of ninth grade, she had such a poor academic and disciplinary record that teachers and administrators, in her words, just gave up on me.

All the study participants detected risks for high school noncompletion during or at the end of their second semester of ninth grade, which caused them considerable distress. Unsupportive or otherwise negative interactions with teachers amplified feelings of uncertainty, to which they responded by disengaging from school and antagonizing teachers to cope with the distress of failure and to register their grievances. The consequences of these actions, as encoded in school policies, exacerbated their troubles with school, and the few attempts by school staff members to help were overtaken by the tightening web of adverse institutional conditions and individual circumstances and uncertainties about graduation.


Three circumstances eventuated the risk that participants would not graduate from NHS; eight participants described being discharged for disciplinary or academic reasons, and the remainder said they left of their own accord.

Boss and Billy reported being kicked out of NHS as second-year freshmen. Billy said the principal told him he could no longer attend because of truancy and recurrent disciplinary infractions: I used to get in trouble or I used to skip, so he never really wanted me at school. He wanted me out. Boss missed two months of school at the end of his first year of ninth grade because of an injury. When he tried to return the following year, he said the principal would not admit him: He told me, Dont bother coming. Where you been? You been taking a vacation? I showed him my scars, and he was, like, I really dont care. He told me, Just get out of here and find a GED, or go do something, but youre not coming here. We could find no evidence that Billy and Boss were officially expelled. They said their parents were never informed of their dismissals, and they were never offered an opportunity to appeal the principals decision. By their accounts, neither had committed an infraction punishable by expulsion under the discipline code; it appears that the principal removed them from school at his own discretion, without regard for their due process rights.

Disciplinary action also directly preceded Jeromes and Rafys departures from NHS. Jerome said he was suspended during his second freshman year, and, per the discipline code, he could not return to school without his mother. Because the school did not contact her, Jerome used suspension as an opportunity to stop attending school:

They dont call the house, so I was like, Theyre not going call my mom, so shes not going to know. So Im going to leave the house every day like if Im going to school and just head up the block. You get me? And thats what I did.

In his second year of ninth grade, Rafy was suspended after a verbal altercation with a teacher. He said his foster mother, who was his legal guardian at the time, refused to come to school so that he could be readmitted. Rafy said he explained this situation to the principal and recalled, The principal told me, If she dont come in, youre not going to be able to come to school, so thats just life. Rafy said he then contacted the department of family services to rectify the situation but never received a call back; like Jerome, he never went back to school.

Like Billy and Boss, Jerome and Rafy reported that school administrators neither informed them of their right to appeal the principals decision nor informed their guardians of the actions taken against them, omissions that violated the discipline code. Rafy was receiving special education (SPED) services. However, it appears that the protections against disciplinary exclusion provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) did not apply because he had not been officially removed from school for more than 10 days in the same school year (IDEA, 2004, "300.530). Therefore, although Rafy was refused readmittance to NHS through no fault of his own, he was cut off from any policy mandates that might have facilitated his return to school.

Four participants said they were discharged by school administrators for academic reasons at the age of 17. Lee said that in his second year of ninth grade, They told me I was too old to be a freshman and I had no credits. . . . They told me I couldnt be around 14-, 15-year-olds. In his second year, Bob was also informed that he had no credits. Although still hopeful that he could graduate, he said the principal told him, Just get your GED because by the time you graduate from here youll be 21. As a third-year ninth grader, JoJo was told he could not return and to enroll in a GED program. Recalling the conversation, he said, I was like, Damn, I was trying to go back to regular school though. And they were like, No, you have no credits. I only had five credits, and I was too old. No school policy sanctioned the academic discharge of students who had not aged out of the K12 system (at 21 for mainstream and 22 for SPED students). It appears, as in the cases of disciplinary discharge, that these four participants were seen as undesirable and removed at administrators own discretion.

The remaining 17 participants described leaving NHS of their own accord; most reported giving up hope of graduating or feeling that they could not endure another year of ninth grade. Similar to TimDog, Anna described the anguish of multiple retentions:

Every year I would come to school, and I would try to do better. . . . They would tell me I have to stay back again, and Im like, No, Im not going to be three years in the same grade and see everybody pass by me! I was already 18 by that time, and Im like, No, I want to graduate, but they didnt let me, so I just got out.

For these participants, as graduation became increasingly uncertain, their desire to complete school eventually gave way to the need to end their troubled relationship with school. After leaving school, only Jerome and Maliky said that a school staff memberin both cases, a teachercontacted them about returning. Jenny, who had signed herself out of school at 16, as a second-year ninth grader, said she was denied readmittance several times. There would be times that I would want to go back, and when I would call [NHS], she recounted, they said I couldnt come back because I had officially dropped out. This denial had no basis in school policy.

The compulsory education law contributed to participants departures from school in several ways. At 16, they could legally drop out, so the district was no longer accountable for keeping them connected to school. We also found that interviewees had misinterpreted the law in a way that worked to their disadvantage. They believed that upon turning 16, the school system no longer had an obligation to serve them, and those who were told they could no longer attend NHS believed they had no recourse. Moreover, we found no evidence that staff members informed participants (or their parents) of their rights to educational services or due process.

The circumstances precipitating and eventuating in participants departures from school evidence a multitude of interrelated contributing factors. Strict attendance and academic policies, in combination with school disorder and lack of staff support, as well as participants lack of preparedness to meet expectations, contributed to academic failure. Both participants and school personnel responded to failure in ways that further hindered success, and school policy indicated an implicit permissiveness toward staff members unhelpful responses. The NHS staff code of conduct stressed respect for good interpersonal relationships with, and genuine interest in [,] the progress of each individual, as well as the need to ensure that students are under supervision at all times. However, the school had precious few policy prescriptions for monitoring or sanctioning violations of these directives. Thus, the synergistic effects of school policies and practices, individual actions, and social interactions helped to produce, amplify, and eventuate the risk that the participants in this study would leave school, as ninth-graders, before graduation.


This study provided insight into the nature of risk for high school noncompletion as experienced by Latina/o ninth-grade leavers. It revealed how a complexity of school-specific factors contributed to their processes of school-leaving and to the production and eventuation of uncertainties about graduation. In this section, we examine the significance of our study findings as related to stage rules and risk processing, and the distribution of risk or potential hazards of noncompletion among school staff and, particularly, low-income and minoritized students. Last, we discuss the implications of our conceptual framework for understanding and investigating high school noncompletion and make recommendations for future research.


Like previous research, this study shows that high school policies and practices play a role in ninth graders school-related challenges. Rather than merely putting into relief or amplifying students preexisting risks, however, our findings implicate these institutional conditions in the production of uncertainties about graduation, especially as related to academic failure. Like many high schools, NHS had stringent attendance and academic requirements for which failure was a primary policy prescription for noncompliance. Such policies can doom students who accrue relatively few unexcused absences to course or grade failure with no means to recover lost credits in the remainder of the school year. Further, ninth graders with even one core course failure may be subject to grade failure (Neild, 2009), which can disincentivize attendance and increase the probability that they will leave school before graduating (McSpadden McNeil, Coppola, Radigan, & Vasquez Heilig, 2008; Neild et al., 2008).

School practices can exacerbate the detrimental potentialities of harsh attendance and academic policies. Lack of schoolhome communication and inadequate oversight over and support for students increase possibilities for absenteeism and academic failure. Further, having students retake courses under the same conditions in which they were previously unsuccessful, which is a common school practice and policy prescription for addressing failure, can increase discouragement and heighten risk for subsequent failures (McSpadden McNeil et al., 2008).

Compulsory education laws can also amplify risk for school-leaving among ninth graders who are not mandated to attend school. Interestingly, a study by Whitehurst and Whitfield (2012) found that the age at which compulsory attendance ends (at 16, 17, or 18) does not play a role in differences between states graduation rates. However, the dropout age may heighten risk by unhooking schools from the responsibility to intervene in students absences from school. As demonstrated in the present study, this lack of accountability can also facilitate the exclusion of students deemed undesirable and may help to explain why many students do not return to school at the end of their [suspension] penalty (Dolan, 2012, p. 109).

In prior research on ninth-grade failure, the significance of high school policies and practices lies in their increased demands, as compared with middle school, and ninth graders lack of preparation to meet them. Our study did show that participants had trouble managing increases in autonomy, academic rigor, and attendance requirements. However, in setting the parameters for, and circumscribing opportunities to recover from, failure, and influencing how students and school personnel process risk information, high school policies and practices likely heighten risk for ninth-grade failure in ways that are independent of students experiences in middle school.

Of course, students must be held to high academic and behavioral expectations. However, unforgiving policies that rely on repetition or punishment to address academic failure can inhibit the very outcomes they aim to support, especially when school practices impede students capacities to meet expectations. Ninth graders need genuinely responsive and remedial interventions that address the causes of their difficulties, help them recover from missteps, particularly after course failure, and expand their pathways to grade promotion.


Academic failure was the most significant event that signaled uncertainty about graduation and initiated risk processing for our study participants. As reflected in prior studies, they often responded in ways that amplified risk (e.g., becoming discouraged, uncooperative, and disengaged). While typically framed from an individualistic position, such responses are shaped by the stage rules and the ways students and school personnel process risk both individually and in interaction with each other. Presently, there is a dearth of research on how personnel perceive and respond to uncertainties about students chances for success. The present study shows that teachers may withhold support from students whom they deem likely to fail classes or to leave school, heightening risk for school-leaving. Teachers may also attenuate risk by increasing support, bolstering students hopes for success, and motivating them to (re)engage in academic work. However, the efficacy of individual teachers efforts to keep students on track to graduation can be stymied by school policies and practices that contribute to risk for course and grade failure and by the contravening actions of other staff members, including administrators.

As rule enforcing agen[ts] (Renn, 1992b, p. 193), school administrators have significant discretionary power that they may exercise to illicitly or unethically remove students from school. We call these proxy expulsions: when administrators discharge students from school contrary to policy or without due process, or they make no effort to facilitate students return to school after suspension. This study and other qualitative research show how such practices are used in high-poverty urban high schools to permanently remove students seen as unlikely to graduate or otherwise undesirable (Gotbaum & York, 2002; Lukes, 2013; McSpadden McNeil et al., 2008). The prevalence of proxy expulsion is unknown. However, given its egregiousness and potential to exacerbate existing educational inequities, this practice deserves more scholarly attention.

Last, outside of their probabilities for noncompletion, little is known about how ninth-grade repeaters might differ from first-year freshmen in their experiences of school-leaving. With each year of high school, ninth graders presumably become more familiar with the stage rules and course content, and each return to school represents renewed hopes and opportunities for success. So why are students less, rather than more, likely to be successful with each attempt at ninth grade? Student discouragement and the fact that repeaters are often expected to succeed under institutional conditions in which they previously failed likely play a role. Our study also suggests that some staff members view ninth graders troubles as increasingly intractable with each retention and become less likely to invest in their progress. More research is needed on the particular experiences of youth who leave school as ninth-grade repeaters, especially given that many are at an age at which they and their schools are unhooked from compulsory attendance requirements.


Among the multiple constituent groups involved in the production of risk for school-leaving in the school context, the distribution of risk is grossly inequitable. Youth experience the greatest potential for harmespecially low-income youth of color in urban communities who, along with their families, often lack the capacity to exert influence over schools (Noguera, 2003, p. 94). Within the context of unequal power relations in schools, stage rules and risk processing work to direct potential hazards away from school personnel and toward students. We propose that reducing uncertainty about graduation among ninth graders, particularly in high-poverty urban schools, must involve redistributing risk through changes in school policies and practices and raising school staff members awareness of their role in school-leaving.

Like those in most school districts, NPS policies fastidiously detailed undesirable student behaviors and outcomes and their consequences (usually failure or punishment). In contrast, school policy neither explicitly named nor sanctioned the staff behaviors described in this study that hindered student progress. This omission in policy and school personnels power over students enabled staff members to engage in such behaviors without concern for reprisal. Low-income students have little or no capacity to hold staff members accountable for their negligence or to change school policies and practices, which circumscribes their options for contesting institutional conditions that inhibit their well-being in effectual ways. This lack of power may help to explain why students respond to uncertainty about graduation in ways that amplify risk (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009b; Tuck, 2011).

Enhancing students institutional power could increase both their own and school staff members capacities to mitigate risk. For example, establishing official venues for students to register their concerns and have them meaningfully addressed would give students a productive way to address their grievances and provide staff with insight into how they can better serve students. Schools must also be proactive in apprising students (and families) of their rights to reduce the likelihood of proxy expulsions and encode consequences for unproductive staff behaviors in school policy. These consequences need not be primarily punitive; they may include training and support for staff members to improve their academic and social relationships with students. We believe that with better understandings of and greater accountability for how their behaviors impact students, school personnel will more actively work to attenuate risk for failure.


Although we did not employ the full conceptual apparatus of the SACR, we used key components of the framework that helped to identify risks for high school noncompletion within the school stage, sources of these risks, and their influences on school processes. Framing risks as uncertainties about school success, as processed by multiple stakeholder groups (e.g., students, school staff, and researchers), provides a common conceptual basis for understanding various dimensions of risk and relationships among them. In moving beyond the view of risks as either statistical probabilities or social experiences, a critical realist perspective supports a fuller accounting of all the complex and contradictory ways in which people perceive and respond to risks [and] . . . the social reality in which people acquire and create interpretations of hazards of risks (Wilkinson, 2001, p. 2). Such an accounting is vital to understanding school-leaving that arises through everyday school processes in which social experiences of uncertainty and real consequences of action (Renn, 1992b, p. 179) are mutually constitutive.

A theoretical framework that encompasses objective and constructivist dimensions of risk provides a way to link and synergize data and findings of quantitative and qualitative research on high school noncompletion and raises compelling questions about their points of convergence. For example, to what degree is the predictive power of statistical risk factors dependent on when, how, and to whom these factors signal uncertainty about school success in the school context and the ways policies and procedures influence how individuals respond? How does risk processing influence relationships between sources of risk information and outcomes? This study indicates that teachers responses to uncertainty can mediate relationships between academic difficulty and failure and that proxy expulsion, as a response to students academic and disciplinary troubles, directly links these troubles to school-leaving. Last, we wonder about the extent to which risk for high school noncompletion lies within schools. Just as some students are deemed at risk for not graduating before they enter high school, in what ways are some high schools are at risk for not graduating students before they enter the building? Answering these questions requires a shift in the dominant view of risk for high school noncompletion from one that is tethered to students to a social phenomenon in which all social actors and institutions involved in school success and failure are implicated.

To realize the full potential of the critical realist perspective of risk for understanding high school noncompletion, future research should apply this framework to mixed-methods, longitudinal investigations that examine experiences of uncertainty among all actors within a stage. Although statistically measurable outcomes at certain points in students educational trajectories may be predictive of high school noncompletion, our findings indicate that risks for noncompletion develop and evolve in various ways over time through ongoing interactions between students (and families), school personnel, and school policies and practices. Although there remains a dearth of qualitative research on school-leaving, that which exists reveals much about these interactive processes. We believe that conceptually connecting this research to the robust body of knowledge about statistical probabilities for noncompletion, through a theory that integrates objective and constructivist dimensions of risk, can lead to more comprehensive understandings of how and why students leave high school before graduating. These understandings are particularly vital in the case of Latina/o and other minoritized youth who are overrepresented among ninth-grade leavers.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of Dr. Betty Malen, professor of education policy studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the preparation of this manuscript.


1. Exceptions to the NHS attendance policy included documented, extended illnesses, hospitalization, authorized religious observances, and the death of an immediate family member.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 7, 2019, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22687, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:00:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Tara Brown
    University of Maryland, College Park
    E-mail Author
    TARA M. BROWN is an assistant professor of education in the Minority & Urban Education specialization in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a former classroom teacher in secondary alternative education. Her research interests focus on the secondary schooling experiences of Black and Latina/o youth and their future implications, particularly as related to school discipline and school-leaving. Tara specializes in qualitative, community-based, participatory, and action research methodologies. Her recent publications include “Hitting the Streets”: Youth Street Involvement as Adaptive Well-Being,” published in the Harvard Educational Review, and “The Making of Vulnerable Workers: Uncredentialed Young Adults in Postindustrial, Urban America,” published in Equity & Excellence in Education.
  • Alice Cook
    University of Maryland, College Park
    E-mail Author
    ALICE L. J. COOK is a secondary mathematics clinical faculty member with Johns Hopkins University for Urban Teachers Baltimore and a doctoral student in Minority and Urban Education and Mathematics Education at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research foci are successful secondary mathematics teaching for mainstream ELL students, social justice mathematics, culturally relevant pedagogy in STEM education, and equity pedagogy for preservice secondary teachers. She is the coauthor of several book chapters, including “Before Chicana Civil Rights: Three Generations of Mexican American Women in Higher Education in the Southwest, 1920–1965,” in Women’s Higher Education in the United States, and “Examining the Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching of Proving in Scenarios Written by Pre-service Teachers” in Mathematics Teachers Engaging With Representations of Practice.
  • Jesus Santos
    Community Researcher
    E-mail Author
    JESUS SANTOS is a community-based researcher and coinvestigator in the study, Uncredentialed: Young Adults Living Without a Secondary Degree with Dr. Tara Brown. He also currently works as a technical support coordinator for an information and communications technology firm. Jesus has conducted numerous presentations at educational research conferences, such as the American Educational Research Association annual meeting and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color Conference.
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