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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.

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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: 9/20/2021 4:37:44 PM

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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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