Nfld. & Labrador

High schools face tough challenge as dropout rate looms over new academic year

Educators are looking outside the box to prevent dropouts, while dropouts are looking outside the education system for help with schooling.

Nearly 5,000 students at risk of dropping out this year

Teniqua Hayter suffered from anxiety that prevented her from staying in school. After exhausting other options, she dropped out before finding an educational avenue with Thrive. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Teniqua Hayter was in the 10th grade when she was overcome with anxiety and realized she would never be able to finish high school.

She says she could not stay in a classroom with 20 kids her own age. After she was placed in a separate room to ease her anxiety, she could feel other kids staring at her in the halls.

She could see no better option than leaving school. So she left.

"I didn't want to let anybody else down with what I did and the choice [to drop out]," she said. 

"But I knew as soon as I dropped out … I knew I couldn't go back."

Michelle Clemens, principal of O'Donel High in Mount Pearl, works to identify students at risk of dropping out as soon as they enter her school. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Michelle Clemens knows the struggle of kids like Hayter.

As the principal of O'Donel High in Mount Pearl — one of the largest schools in the province — she has a long list of children deemed at risk of dropping out.

If averages hold true, more than 1,200 high school students will drop out this year. Another 4,491 are considered at risk to leave school.

According to studies, the average high school dropout costs the provincial government $16,000 annually. They tend to be employed in lower-income jobs and rely on services such as unemployment insurance more often.

We still have to be creative now.- Michelle Clemens

The provincial task force on education estimates the annual cost of high school dropouts in Newfoundland and Labrador is at least $20 million.

A lot of good work has been done to keep kids in school over the years, Clemens said, but there's still a group of kids educators cannot reach.

Many of those kids are linked by struggles with mental health.

"This last group of students need very individualized responses, and we really need to start thinking outside the box," Clemens said.

"We have done innumerable things to prevent them from dropping out of school. Everything we've done and everything we've tried, we still have to be creative now."

For some, best options lie outside school walls 

Part of finding a solution is working with at-risk students to find what could keep them in school.

For Hayter, a slower-paced, individual approach could have made the difference.

"I needed something that would support me and more so be on my time, instead of regular school," she said.

At Thrive, Teniqua Hayter attends classroom sessions one day a week and works toward her high school equivalency. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

After dropping out, with no hope of returning to school, Hayter found the approach she needed from the local youth group Thrive.

At their headquarters on Lemarchant Road, Hayter does one day a week of classes working toward a GED. She gets to decide what she works on each week and has one-on-one instruction to learn at her own pace.

When she started at the beginning of the last school year, tests determined she was at a sixth grade level in math. By the end of the year, her grade average in math was 8.6.

"In seven months I went up two grade levels in math," she said. "I was ecstatic to hear those results because I didn't think a program like this could teach me so much."

We can recognize in Grade 8 they are a risk for dropping out. So why do we have to wait?- Michelle Clemens

For Clemens, the answer to the problem in the metro St. John's region may lie outside the education system in community groups like Thrive, Choices For Youth and the Murphy Centre.

Educators begin identifying kids at risk of dropping out in junior high. Clemens has seen plenty of kids fall through the cracks over the years, and she's seen some of them find success outside of school.

When a student's options inside the school have been exhausted, Clemens tries to link them up with a group like Thrive.

Help often comes too late

Aside from Choices For Youth and Thrive, most preparatory programs for adult basic education and high school equivalency require students to be 18 or 19.

Inevitably, some students slip through the cracks before they reach that age.

"We can recognize in Grade 8 they are a risk for dropping out. So why do we have to wait until a fourth year or a third year to say. 'OK, let's connect them with a program?'"

Michelle Clemens, principal of O'Donel High, says it is time for educators to get creative in finding ways to keep kids in school. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Two years after leaving high school, Hayter is on track to write her high school equivalency exam by her 18th birthday in March.

She has plans to attend university and work on a business degree.

Without Thrive, she believes she would be another high school dropout without hope for an education.

"The program is amazing for me. It fits me academically," she said.

"They take it at my pace. If I have to spend the next three years here trying to get my GED, that's fine with them."


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.