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Many high school dropouts in Columbia lack food, shelter


  This week on Intersection, Douglass Principal Eryca Neville and Youth Empowerment Zone Director Lorenzo Lawson spoke about why students drop out. Many times it’s a lot simpler than you’d expect: Kids are lacking basic needs most take for granted, like housing and food.

In Missouri, the high school dropout rate averaged 3.2 percent in 2012, with Columbia a bit higher at 4 percent, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

But these rates vary drastically between Columbia high schools. While dropout rates at Hickman and Rock Bridge hover near the state average, Douglass High School, an alternative school serving a smaller demographic of students, saw more than one-third of its students drop out in 2012.

Homelessness creates many hurdles for students struggling to finish school, Lawson said. Simply put: having nowhere permanent to live poses a challenge for getting homework done.

“Majority of these students, they are homeless,” Lawson said. “They stay with friends, they couch surf. How difficult is it to go home and do homework when the environment you’re staying in is a party environment with music and TVs blaring?”

Without a stable home environment, students lack support systems, he said.

“Some of them, their parents aren’t in their lives,” Lawson said. “They’re staying with aunts, uncles, friends.”

And these homeless students aren’t easy to pick out, he said. Even at the Youth Empowerment Zone, an organization that mentors at-risk students, Lawson said it’s sometimes hard to tell who is lacking basic needs.

“Most of them, if you meet them, you wouldn’t have a clue of what they’re going through,” he said. “They can carry on a conversation without letting you know, ‘Last night, I went hungry,’ ‘I need a place to wash my clothes.’”

Many students drop out because they find it too difficult to provide for themselves while spending so much time at school, Neville said. It’s too much to ask them to perform academically when they don’t have basic human necessities, she said.

“You have students who are economically in adverse situations, and you bring them in and say, ‘I want a higher test score out of you,’” Neville said.

However, there are students who can make it through school regardless of homelessness and hunger, Lawson said.

“I have one young lady who was sleeping in a car and still she was making a B average at Hickman High School and... the school system didn’t have a clue this child was homeless,” he said.

The Youth Empowerment Zone partners with local food banks to provide meals for students who come in for job training or a quiet place to study. Feeding kids is the first step to getting them on track in school, Lawson said.

“It’s hard for kids to concentrate when they’re hungry,” he said. “You have to take care of those basic needs first.”

Interested in helping at-risk teens? Visit the Youth Empowerment Zone website to see how you can get involved.

Lawson and Neville spoke with KBIA on Intersection earlier this week. View the program and follow us on Twitter.

Catch Intersection on KBIA every Monday at 2 p.m. to hear experts discuss Mid-Missouri issues. Or, if you prefer your news in podcast form, check out KBIA's brand new podcast, CoMo Explained. The KBIA News Team breaks down the news and explains how it fits into your life. Next week’s topic: C-2 zoning issues.

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