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Analyzing the Dropout Phenomenon: A Qualitative Study on the Lived Early School Experiences of Students with Learning Disabilities and its Impact on High School Completion


Today’s high school student faces several complex experiences that impact his or her decision to stay in school. These factors, often a culmination of school events beginning in the elementary years, are correlated to a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school. Moreover, students with disabilities face additional factors that impact the likelihood of completing high school. Students with disabilities are less likely to earn a college degree, more likely to be underemployed or on public assistance, earn less income, and have higher rates of incarceration after leaving school. Not surprisingly, students with learning disabilities drop out at higher rates when compared to their non-disabled peers. This dissertation addresses the current state of the dropout phenomenon among students with learning disabilities. It examines the early school experiences that students with learning disabilities face in order to add qualitative data to the existing quantitative research that studies students with learning disabilities who drop out.

This dissertation utilized a semi-structured interview protocol and a review of student and school records and solicited the input of eight study participants at one traditional high school in Southern California. Findings resulted in identifying four of the eight students as “At-risk” for school failure, and they were grouped accordingly. Students were asked questions related to their elementary, middle and high school experiences with relation to potential graduation outcomes. The Student Voice Theory guided the theoretical framework of this study. It was supported by a secondary framework, the Self Determination Theory, which guided the findings addressing the study sub-questions.

The results of the study concluded with three major themes addressing the research question and two major themes addressing the sub-questions. Findings within the themes resulted in subthemes within the themes. Overwhelmingly, the study results indicated relational experiences as being paramount to a student’s success, or perceived success, in high school. Additional findings indicated that students found school transitions and peer relationships to be salient factors in their success. Students in the “At-risk” cohort identified additional factors, learning difficulties and negative school transitions, as being significant. Findings resulted in the need for a success model to address the prevalent factors necessary to ensure high school completion for students who are learning disabled, and for those who are at-risk for failure.

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