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To graduate, teens need adults who believe in them

KRISTY KOTTKEYThis month, thousands of students in Oregon will walk across the stage at their high school graduation ceremonies. For many of them, commencement is a stepping stone toward a life they envision for themselves. For others it is a milestone that comes with deep uncertainty about their futures. And for still others, it remains a dream they have not yet achieved.

A good friend of mine is a parent of one of those graduating seniors. She tells me it took an indescribable amount of hard work, focus, determination and “not-so-gentle” prodding on her part just to get her daughter across that stage. The two of us often wonder aloud how much of a challenge it is for kids who don’t have that strong, unwavering support at home.

I, too, was the child of two parents who pushed, guided and provided me with just about everything I might need to reach my dreams. They “made me” take piano lessons and swim lessons. I could afford to play sports, was lucky enough to sit at the dinner table every night with a family that had the time, money and ability to push me when I didn’t want to push myself. I made it to my dream of being a teacher, but it was not without an incredible amount of additional support.

For 25 percent of Oregon students, that dream of graduating will not happen this year. There are all sorts of reasons for that, and schools and communities are struggling to find the answers to this dilemma. I’ve been in conversations with many people who have said, “Well, the kids who don’t graduate just need to try harder.” The solutions are much more complicated than that.

But to begin the conversation, we have to be willing to do something we haven’t been great at: stop blaming and start understanding. Because the biggest misconception out there is that kids who aren’t graduating just don’t care: “They are lazy. They aren’t working hard enough. They are squandering their opportunities.” Not only are these perceptions not true, they are holding us back from honestly addressing the problems.

I recently sat down with one of those 25 percent who is so far off track to graduate on time he was frozen with doubt about whether or not he could even do it. He does hope to become a police officer, but he failed several classes in his early years of high school. In his words, “I tried as hard as I could, but I just couldn’t understand the material.”

As he got older, he began to understand the work in some classes and slowly was earning the credit he needed. He now works a part-time job after school, is taking credit recovery classes and is hoping to get his diploma. He placed all the blame on himself and told me, “I knew better. I should have studied harder.”

I stopped him right there. I told him that research shows us that his brain is still developing until his mid-20s. That’s not an excuse — it’s a fact, and just one of many reasons this student struggled academically. Yes, he could have studied harder, but the reasons why he didn’t are not so simple.

A friend of mine and I disagree about that. She believes if 75 percent of our students are able to navigate the system, his failure must be solely his fault. I told her that until she changes her mindset, she would not be able to begin to help this kid. Why? Because she has to be willing to see the whole picture. To know his story.

Instead of blaming, we need to see what’s missing. Yes, we can hold him accountable, but he is a kid. Even at 17, he still needs that help, even if he doesn’t know yet how to ask for it. It might be different than what she and I needed, and that fact is sometimes hard for people to understand.

Because here’s the thing. This kid — one of the ones who won’t graduate on time — wants to graduate on time. He hopes to be a police officer so he can “give back to his community.” He just needs different supports and ways to get there than we had.

He wanted someone who would help him know what to do next. Someone who would push him to get his work in and go to class. Someone who believed he has goals just like the valedictorian, the three-sport athlete or the debate captain.

My friend said, “Well, that should be his parents’ jobs! That isn’t my problem.” But for kids who don’t have the parents who push, or the family who supports, or the financial means, it’s all of our jobs. They need someone.

I applaud our school board and administration for listening to the 25 percent of students who need something different, and for thinking creatively and with a sense of urgency to adjust our systems so we not only continue to provide what’s working for some, but ask ourselves what can we provide that can reach the “all.”

Kristy Kottkey is a Forest Grove resident and a substitute teacher for the Hillsboro School District.