Simon Fraser University

Lonely decision to drop out

Jan 09, 2003 , vol. 26, no. 1

By Marianne Meadahl
More than half of aboriginal youths who dropped out of high school in one Vancouver Island community made the decision to leave school early without the influence of peers or family. They spent at least two months weighing the pros and cons of the action.

SFU PhD psychology student Kim van der Woerd (left) surveyed 131 youths from Alert Bay and found that most dropouts — nearly 60 per cent - made their decisions in isolation.

The information was a key finding in her research into the health and well-being of aboriginal young people growing up in the small coastal community of the Namgis band, of which van der Woerd is also a member. About half of the community's population of 1,500 live on a reserve.

Van der Woerd is also investigating the decision-making process among dropouts after securing a four-year scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It will enable her to continue to conduct research on education and health issues affecting aboriginal youth.

Van der Woerd will receive $17,700 in each of the four years. She was also given a $10,000 scholarship from the Native Education Centre in Vancouver. Van der Woerd's research grew from her earlier work analysing data from the 1998 Adolescent Health Survey II (AHS II).

The province-wide survey was administered to B.C. high school students by the McCreary Centre society, which promotes health among youth, to look at issues that influence the health of adolescents, including aboriginal students. That led to a B.C. Health Research Foundation studentship used by van der Woerd to conduct research on the well-being of aboriginal youths not included in the survey - those who dropped out of school.

While the aboriginal dropout rate isn't increasing, van der Woerd says it hasn't improved over the past decade. Approximately 61 per cent do not complete Grade 12 within six years of beginning Grade 8, compared with 26 per cent of non-aboriginal students.

The Alert Bay study found that while increased levels of school connection were associated with decreased delinquency, school attendance and family connections were not associated with health or delinquency. Dropouts were more likely to report being addicted to alcohol and marijuana. Reasons for dropping out of school were varied and included pregnancy, problems at home or school, or employment.

Youth who did talk to someone about the decision to leave school early most often turned to a parent or friend. “This is interesting when considering the social network for those youth who dropped out,” says van der Woerd, noting that a majority had a sibling drop out of school while all had a friend do the same, and nearly 70 per cent had parents who did not complete school.

“It's not a decision they take lightly, because the most frequent response among those who made the decision in isolation was that they had spent a lot of time thinking about it first,” she adds. “Despite the social networks that exist, most chose not to talk to anyone. That's troubling.

“We need to learn more about what goes on during this stage and the factors they are weighing to develop ways of encouraging them to stay in school.”

Van der Woerd says the community response has been positive and members are willing to participate in developing solutions.