Don’t Quit on Me

What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships

Release Date: 


Download the Full Report (80 pgs.)
Download the Summary (20 pgs.)
Download the Executive Summary (2 pgs.)

This report examines, from the perspective of young people themselves, the roles that relationships with adults and peers play in decisions about staying in, leaving and returning to high school. Building on previous studies, including last year’s Don’t Call Them Dropouts, this report offers new insights about how support from adults and peers can help to close the remaining gaps between those who graduate from high school on time and those who don’t.

“We know a great deal from previous research on youth development that relationships are instrumental in helping young people stay in school,” said Jonathan Zaff, PhD, the report’s lead author and executive director of the Center for Promise. “But now we need to know more about how, when and why these relationships matter and what it takes to make the right support available at the right time for young people who are not graduating on time. That’s what we set out to learn.”

The title, “Don’t Quit on Me,” echoes the many young people who expressed gratitude to those who didn’t give up on them and represents a call to action for caring adults. We can’t quit on young people dealing with tremendous adversity, especially now that we know how powerful relationships are in engaging and re-engaging young people in education.

Young people we surveyed who leave school before graduating, are much more likely than graduates to have faced multiple “adverse life experiences” when they were 14 to 18 years old.

More than 50 percent of those who left school without graduating faced five or more adverse life experiences between the ages of 14 and 18, compared to 20 percent of those who graduated without interruption.

Exposure to multiple adverse life experiences is related to a higher risk of interrupted enrollment – with the odds increasing by nearly 20 percent for each additional adverse experience.

"At eight years old, I had a good life… Till my father passed away. Then my mother became depressed. Me and my brother went into the system." - Maxwell

Compared to young people who graduated on time, young people who left school without graduating were twice as likely to report that they reached out to “no one” for help and half as likely to have reached out to a teacher for help.


There are seven adverse life experiences that rise to the top as significant predictors of leaving school without graduating:

  1. Becoming a parent
  2. Being suspended or expelled
  3. Having many friends leave school
  4. Not feeling academically prepared for school
  5. Having a major mental health issue (such as depression or anxiety)
  6. Being homeless
  7. Moving homes

“So she [mom] moved back to doing crack and drinking. So it was just I don’t know how to explain, but at that time my mind was racing on way other things than school…”

- Justin

  • The presence of stable, trusting relationships is a key factor for enabling re-engagement. Stable relationships with non-family adults, in particular, play a big role in young people’s re-engagement with school.

  • The four types of social support are: emotional, informational, appraisal and instrumental. Each of these plays a specific role for a young person’s development, but emotional (love and caring) and instrumental (actions like providing a bus pass, a meal, a ride or babysitting) acting in tandem are most likely to increase the number of students graduating without interruption.

"They’ll come check with me, take me to play basketball… see if everything’s okay... make sure I get to school on time. … Just basically staying on top of me, and as they do, I’m starting to get the hang of it myself." - Terrence

  • Social support enables young people to direct their strengths toward educational goals. Young people with high self-control and high support are 15 percentage points more likely to graduate without interruption than those with high self-control and low support.
  • When nearly 1,200 survey respondents who did not graduate on time were asked why they returned to school, by far the most frequent response was, “Someone encouraged me to return."

"They’ve [Kyle and Jorge] been there for me for a long time. They’ve been pushing, helping me. Even through all my flaws, they still help me get through it.”

- Terrence

  • For young people reporting medium levels of risk (two to four adverse life experiences), a Web of Support from parents, adults in school and friends can buffer adversity and increase on-time graduation rates.

  • For young people reporting five or more adverse life experiences, social support alone does little to buffer the effects of adversity; the hurdles are too high. Uninterrupted graduation stays well below 50 percent, even with high support from multiple sources.

  • More intensive support that includes intentional efforts to resolve trauma, food insecurity, housing and other adverse life experiences can help youth re-engage and very likely keep them on a path to graduation.

“When it gets really personal, to where I would get upset and shut down and block people out at some points, it would be Ms. W and Ms. J.”

- Carlie

  • A relationship with one stable, trusted person makes a difference. This “anchoring” relationship allows the young person to access available community assets and to leverage internal strengths.

  • However, a single caring adult cannot be the sole support. The purpose of the anchoring relationship is to serve as a gateway to a Web of Support – which may include family, caring adults inside and outside school, and peers – making an array of supports visible, accessible and relevant to re-engagement.

"When it comes to transportation, it’s Ms. C, Ms. D and Ms. J. When it comes to education, it’s all of them. When it comes to, like I just want to get stuff off my chest, it’s all of them." - Carlie

Individuals can:

Schools can:

  • Make it harder to leave and easier to return (create more on-ramps than off-ramps)
  • Bring the Web of Support in
  • Invest in building relationships and leveraging students’ strengths
  • End zero-tolerance disciplinary policies
  • Engage young people as peer supporters

For a full list of recommendations and links to resources and organizations that can help, see the Recommendations sections of the Full Report (pg.33).

Communities can:

  • Assess risk and resources of young people in your community
  • Improve the odds that all young people have access to an Anchor
  • Engage health care professionals
  • Include social support systems
  • See education and youth services as an economic development investment

The research team for Don’t Quit on Me conducted 16 group interviews in eight cities with a total of 102 young people, 19 additional individual in-depth interviews in six of the same eight cities, and a national 96-question survey of 2,830 young people, 42 percent (1,190) of whom had interrupted their high school education for at least one semester before graduating.

When reading the findings, it is important to note that the interview participants (in both group and individual interview settings) and the survey respondents were drawn from different populations. The more than 120 young people who participated in the group and individual interviews live in urban communities and were connected in some way to organizations that re-engage young people who have left high school. (See a list of these organizations in Appendix II of the full report.)

The 2,830 survey respondents were from an online panel and came from 48 states and the District of Columbia.

To analyze and interpret the interview and survey data, the study utilized what is called a “convergence mixed-methods triangulation design.” Mixed-methods designs recognize that not all research questions can be answered using a single formulation of data.

For a full description of the methodology, including the quantitative and qualitative samples, see Appendix I of the full report.

With the release of Don’t Quit on Me: What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships, we hope to change the conversation about — and the lives — of the nearly 500,000 young people who will leave high school this year without graduation. This report shows how relationships can make all the difference and how all of us can help. 

Please join the conversation by using the hashtag #NotDropouts and download the partner and community social media guide. 

Help spread the word about Don’t Quit on Me (just click to launch and edit the tweet below in Twitter): 

NEW REPORT: Download Don't Quit on Me & learn what #youth say about the power of relationships. #NotDropouts http://bit.ly/DontQuitOnMe

Note: To protect the young people’s identities, the quotes are all referred to by an alias and not associated with the cities or the programs where interviews took place. For a list of the cities and programs associated with the group interviews, please see the full report.

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