Preventing High School Students from Dropping Out: Different Solutions for Boys and for Girls

Written by

Terri Wright
Terri Wright Terri D. Wright is the director of the newly established Center for School, Health & Education Division of Public Health Policy and Practice at the American Public Health Association. She will provide leadership to the strategic development and integration of public health in school-based health care and education. She recently retired from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, MI where she served for 12 years as a program director for health policy. In that capacity Terri developed and reviewed the Foundation’s health programming priorities and initiatives, evaluated and recommended proposals for funding, and administered projects and initiatives. She also assisted in public policy analysis and related policy program development, as well as provided leadership to the Foundation’s school-based health care policy program. Previously, Terri was maternal and child health director and bureau chief for Child and Family Services at the Michigan Department of Community Health in Lansing, Michigan. In that role, she managed policy, programs and resources with the goal of reducing preventable maternal, infant, and child morbidity and mortality through policy and programming. She received her bachelor’s degree in community and school health, as well as her New York State certification in secondary school education from the City University of New York and her master’s of public health degree in health planning and administration from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is currently a doctoral student in public health at the University of Michigan. Terri takes an active leadership role in several professional associations and community organizations including the American Public Health Association and the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity and the Elimination of Health Disparities.

Although boys and girls who drop out of high school sometimes do so for similar reasons, there are also some clear gender differences in what drives them to drop out. If we are to make progress in supporting all students to graduate, we need to understand these different causes for boys and for girls, and create solutions tailored to anticipate, prevent and respond to them.

Common Reasons Boys Drop Out of School

Among boys, some of the main causes of dropping out are disciplinary actions in school, such as suspension or expulsion, and misbehavior out of school that leads to incarceration.

Well over three million children in kindergarten through 12th grade were suspended in 2009-2010, report Daniel Losen and Jonathan Gillepsie in Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School. “That’s about the number of children it would take to fill every seat in every major league baseball park and every NFL stadium in America, combined,” they write.

A recent article in Education Week noted that an African American teenager told an incoming school superintendent in Philadelphia, that there are more adults working in his high school who could arrest him than could help him fill out applications for college financial aid.

Other reasons boys drop out of school include the need to hold down a job to support their families or start a career, poor academic performance, chronic absenteeism and disengagement from school


Common Reasons Girls Drop Out of School

Pregnancy and parenting account for almost half of the girls who drop out. While it has been illegal for schools to exclude pregnant and parenting students since the enactment of Title IX in 1972, many schools fail to help pregnant and parenting teens stay in school, and some actually exclude or punish them.

Sometimes the discrimination is more subtle, reports the American Civil Liberties Union. Schools refuse to give excused absences for doctor’s appointments;, teachers refuse to allow students to make-up work; or staff members exclude girls from school activities based on “morality” codes, or make disparaging, discouraging and disapproving comments.

Taking care of younger siblings or older relatives also causes girls to drop out of school, and some evidence suggests that Latinas are more likely to be pulled out of school for these reasons than their brothers or other girls. Girls also drop out to earn money to support themselves or to pay for the expenses of parenting.

Girls are more likely to fear that someone will hurt or bother them at school, and they say this fear discourages them from going to school or fully participating in their classes. Some research indicates that families of Latinas may be especially likely to keep their daughters from going to school if they fear for their daughters’ safety.

Other reasons girls drop out in greater proportions than boys include not being able to keep up with schoolwork and believing that they could not complete course requirements. 


Different Reasons for Dropping Out Require Different Interventions

Across numerous studies, youth who dropped out say that they would have stayed in school if they had received more support from the adults there. In providing that support, it is essential that schools and communities address the specific and different needs of boys and girls. School-based health centers (SBHCs) are an excellent resource.

Because they are onsite with a trusted, multi-disciplinary staff, SBHCs are well positioned to identify barriers to graduation and help students manage challenges. SBHCs help students be more resilient and teach strategies for managing stresses that can get in the way of learning. They also serve as a safe haven for students, fostering a culture of caring in the school, and helping to remove gender-based barriers to school engagement, connectedness, and attendance, paving the way to graduation.

Beyond their work with students, SBHCs can serve as advisers and supporters to teachers and principals on establishing gender-relevant policies and practices, and can connect students, the school, and the community to assure comprehensive, coordinated, and integrated care.

While there has been some recent progress, much more needs to be learned about the different pathways boys and girls take to graduation or to dropping out. SBHCs can serve as an important community resource and voice for gender-relevant research, policy and practices in the ongoing effort to end the national dropout epidemic.


Terri D. Wright is Director of the Center for School, Health and Education at the American Public Health Association. Visit or follow us on Twitter at @stopdropout.

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