Last year, Seattle made headlines for being the most highly educated big city in the U.S. — in large part thanks to the newcomers moving here with college degrees.

Those headlines, though, masked the trajectories of many who were born and raised around here.

In South King County, more than 18,000 youth don’t have a diploma or a job, and that number increases by nearly 2,000 youth each year. A new report may help explain exactly what persuaded these youth to leave school in the first place — and what can be done about it.

“Homelessness, mental health, the impact of racism at school. … It’s not one factor (but) a culmination of things that ultimately may lead to somebody’s disengagement,” said Danika Martinez, a program director for Seattle Education Access (SEA). The local nonprofit supports 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither working nor in school. (The group soon will rebrand as Northwest Education Access as it expands to Pierce and Snohomish counties.)

The organization connects these so-called “opportunity youth” with personal advocates, who help them navigate the tangled system of higher education and teaches each student to set and reach their goals.

In the new report, Martinez and her co-authors examined hundreds of responses that young people provided in a survey that they take when they first start working with SEA. The survey found that 26% of about 300 students listed school climate — a factor that touches on how safe or welcome they feel on campus — as the primary reason they disengaged.


Another 25% cited their academic struggles, while health and wellness, family instability, parenthood and homelessness presented additional barriers.

“One of the things that really stood out was the amount of students who told us they didn’t know they weren’t on track to graduate until late … sometimes spring of their senior year,” said Henry Joel Crumé, lead author of the report and a doctoral student at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.

The school collaborated on the report with Seattle Education Access and the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that works to improve educational outcomes in South Seattle and South King County.

A 2016 report first counted exactly how many youth in King County are out of school and work, pinpointed which schools they attended before dropping out, and what happened to them.

The new report dives deep into the narratives behind those experiences and includes pseudonymous quotes from interviews with 15 young people working with SEA. One African-American male, “Carson,” described how a negative school climate — and, specifically, low expectations from adults — diminished his academic motivation.

“I was in the position where I didn’t really care because the teachers didn’t really seem like they cared,” he said.


Another African-American student, “Lana,” shared how dramatic changes outside school made it hard to remain engaged in class. She told Crumé that her family became homeless and started living in motels or staying with friends.

“That’s where the school problems started,” Lana said. “Because, you know, it’s like depression … so you’re gonna miss some days of school.”

A common thread in the student interviews, according to the report, was the need for schools to do a better job at helping students who struggle.

“Maybe it’d be good if they notice a problem with students like that,” Lana said. “Because, you know, they are going into depression, maybe they want to kill themselves … they should ask.”

The report also looked to the future, asking students about their aspirations to finish high school and go onto college. A key finding: Students perform better when adults believe in their potential.

“Seeing that there were people who genuinely want to see you succeed pushed me and motivated me,” said “Maya,” a Latinx female. “And I said, ‘OK, I do have people who care … and want to see me get this diploma.’ That kind of drove me.”


The report offers recommendations for educators that students say might have kept them in school through graduation. They include making schools more welcoming, especially for students of color, and increasing mental-health resources.

Kanza Hamidani, a student advocate with Seattle Education Access, helped Crumé with the one-on-one interviews and said each student wanted to know what happens with the report.

She said, “The students want to be part of that change, and now they want to use their voice to push for that.”