14,000 Reasons Why Local Youth Don’t Graduate

By United Way of King County, on April 26, 2019 | In Helping Students Graduate, Success Stories

Disconnected youth. What does that even mean? It’s a term used by social scientists that refers to young people 16-24 who are neither working nor attending school and don’t have a diploma. We have about 14,000 young people in King County and Seattle who fit that definition. Most of them are youth of color, many are speak English as a second language. About a third of them are currently homeless or unstably housed.

One of the biggest challenges we face at United Way when talking about our Reconnecting Youth Program is helping people understand why young people disconnect in the first place and why it matters.

For Zena ,it was when she lost both parents to cancer when she was 14. She moved in with her aunt, but her aunt lived far away from her school. She stayed up late at nights watching her very young cousins while her aunt was at work. Marité, daughter of a single mother, suffered from anxiety and depression as a result of bullying and learned in 11th grade that she had less than ¼ of the credits she needed to graduate. Ingrid dropped out of school to care for her baby sister when her parents became addicted to drugs and alcohol. While each of their stories are unique, there are some shared themes that point to systemic issues in our community.

Youth in our community care deeply about their education and their future, but they face barriers like poverty, racism, homelessness or the lack of supportive peers and adults in their lives. These overlapping disadvantages have likely been with them from their formative years and make it incredibly hard to persist and excel in school.

Why does it matter? The most obvious impact of being disconnected in your teens is economic. Without a high school diploma or a trade skill, the odds of getting a living wage job are low. They’re  likely to stay locked in a generational cycle of poverty.

But, beyond the math, think of the tremendous loss of potential for our community. These young people and the families they will someday start are our future work force, business leaders and consumers. They didn’t leave school because they’re not smart or because they are lazy. They left school because the system wasn’t built for them and the deck is stacked against them.

The youth in our Reconnecting Youth program are some of the most determined and resilient problem solvers I’ve met. They’re working their tails off to build a better future. These are people with  the potential to solve some of the toughest challenges facing our community and our nation. We need them. It’s our responsibility not just to them but to our community to help them get reconnected to their education in a way that works for them so they can realize the potential they have and that King County needs.


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