Before we embarked on this project we were not sure how well the oral history approach work. Would youth even want to talk with us? Would they be able to reflect on their experiences and share candidly? Would their personal experiences be too painful to dredge up? Some who worked with at-risk youth advised us that we might be disappointed in the results: The higher-risk youth we planned to speak with were likely to skip over, cover up or even lie about critical events leading to their school problems. They might not have the ability or interest in engaging in a lengthy interview. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect to really learn very much about the dropout process directly from them.
Yet others serving this population were more encouraging, enthusiastic, even, about a project on “dropouts” that would tap youth voice. Previous research on dropping out had been largely quantitative, based on survey data and student records. From this data we knew a lot about the correlates of dropping out (what characteristics make a student more at-risk for dropping out), but very little about the actual dropping out process and the causal connections driving that process. One of the main ways we felt we could fill in this knowledge gap was by systematically gathering, analyzing and interpreting the narratives of those who are at the center of the process—the youth themselves.
As it turned out, we needn’t have worried about the youths’ commitment to being authentic participants in this research endeavor. Almost all the youth we spoke with in our first round of interviews (and subsequently in our second round, as well) were motivated, even eager in many cases, to share their stories with us. (The average interview time was close to 50 minutes.) Of course, the youths’ version reflected their perceptions, which might not mesh with how the adults in their lives would see things. But their stories were remarkable in their candor, detail and poignancy. For example, a student described the pain of transferring to a new school and her inability to adjust socially and academically:
The beginning of the school year and throughout December was horrible. I hated middle school…I would call my mom [from school] and be like, “Can you come for me?” And at lunch I hated it. Like I would stay by myself, and I don’t know. It was kinda sad.