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School dropout study: ‘You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to help a kid.’

T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va., matches at-risk students with mentors who help make sure they go to class and pass their tests. Here, counselors track students’ progress toward graduation in what they call the ‘situation room.’ (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Shaun-til Johnson was 15 when she decided to drop out of high school, and no one stood in her way. Her mom was using drugs. Her older sister — who served as a mother — had just been killed in a car accident. And her teachers, she felt, didn’t seem to care whether she showed up for school or not.

“I didn’t have a lot of guidance,” Johnson says now, seven years later. She ran away from home, got locked up and worked minimum-wage and illicit jobs to try to get by. “When I dropped out,” she said, “everything I did from that point on was a terrible decision.”

In many ways, Johnson, who lives in Baltimore, is typical of young people who drop out of school, according to the America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of groups seeking to boost graduation rates nationwide.

Teens who leave school report twice as many adverse life experiences — such as being suspended, being homeless or having a baby — as those who stay in school, according to a new study by the Alliance.

Supportive relationships with adults at school and in the community can play a buffering role, the study found, increasing the chances that at-risk young people will stay in school — or go back to school after dropping out — despite the challenges they face.

Those conclusions are based on a nationwide survey of more than 2,800 young people, nearly half of whom had dropped out at some point, along with focus-group interviews with more than 100 young people in eight cities.

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John Gomperts, the president and CEO of the Alliance, said that the findings are hopeful because they suggest that adults can make a real difference for struggling young people. And they don’t have to be heroes who sacrifice a lot of time or money, he said, in order to provide emotional or practical support — like a bus pass — that can change a teen’s odds.

“You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to help a kid,” Gomperts said.

But even support has its limits, the study found: Young people who report having five or more adverse life experiences between the ages of 14 and 18 have less than a 50-50 chance of graduating no matter how many supportive adults are in their lives. Those young people, the Alliance argues, need more intensive social and emotional services than they are currently getting at school.

Shaun-til Johnson said relationships have played a role in helping her find a path to what she hopes will be a better job and a stable life.

In January, she began a one-year program in Baltimore in that helps young people earn a GED and three health care industry certifications. She passed her GED exams on the first try, and now she is close to becoming a certified nursing assistant, geriatric nursing assistant and certified phlebotomy technician.

“I’m proud of myself,” she said. “I actually worked harder than I ever worked.”

Whenever she is absent, or even late, someone from the program calls her or knocks on her door. “That’s helpful, because you know someone cares whether you were there or not,” she said.

But Johnson said that she is also succeeding now because something changed inside of her. Now 22, she said she has experienced the kind of life she doesn’t want to have, and she knows she is capable of something different.

Eventually, she wants to not just have a job, but be a boss: She wants to own an assisted-living facility.

“I’ve been poor my whole life. I just want to be financially stable, and I have a brain,” she said. “Once I started in this program, I said it’s now or never.”