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.