Kentucky and Maryland recently raised the legal age a student can drop out of high school. While Kentucky raised its dropout age from 16 to 18, Maryland raised its dropout age from 16 to 17, with plans to raise it again to 18 in 2017. With these new laws, both states hope to underscore the importance of a K-12 education and argue that keeping teens in school longer will help to combat the dropout crisis. However, a series of unintended consequences have challenged these new mandates, and others argue that states and school districts should be investing in other alternative solutions to the dropout age law.
Fraught with Good Intentions
By passing these new laws, the states are encouraging students to graduate through the traditional system, which, they say, has been designed for student success. In order to produce a 21st century workforce, states demand that students stay in school so they can receive the proper postsecondary and career preparation and guidance they need. The states recognize that many students will be caught in the transition over to the new law. Officials hope to encourage school districts to find solutions in order to smooth over the transition for former dropouts that now must return to school. School districts may offer older students job training and alternative pathways programs as a temporary fix for certain cases.
Though school districts have had plenty of time to prepare, thousands of students are now in limbo. Students that have dropped out who are underage for the new law must now find their way back into the system that didn't work for them. Students that had dropped out legally to pursue other education options or jobs, will now be faced with truancy charges if they do not return to high school. However well-intentioned, there are many issues that are not addressed by raising the dropout age. Students who have dropped out and chose to enroll in GED classes must now go back to traditional school. Young parents who dropped out to work full time and take care of their families must now re-enroll. Former dropouts are also faced with transportation and school capacity issues- where getting back to school would be downright impossible. Returning to a place that had failed them after so much time also comes with a variety of social and mental barriers.
Hearing from Students First-Hand
In order to hear from students first-hand, Penn Foster interviewed two former high school dropouts that chose to enroll in an alternative pathways program offered by their school district.
Brandon a 19 year old father with a 4 year old son. Born and raised in Scranton, PA, Brandon attended public school up until halfway through his senior year. "High school was very stressful for me. Having a young child and trying to balance back and forth wasn't the easiest. I did enjoy being in school, it just became a lot with being a dad and going to school." Brandon chose to drop out of high school so he could pursue a full-time job to support his family. Realizing he needed to get his high school diploma in order to get into college to pursue a career, Brandon enrolled in his school district's dropout retrieval program with Penn Foster. "I chose the Penn Foster program over high school because the hours were very flexible," he said. " I feel as though Penn Foster has helped me significantly as a student. In traditional high school I always got overwhelmed. I would feel behind from the other students. I also had a hard time focusing, so when I began Penn Foster and saw that with just a few breaks a day, I scored higher on my quizzes and actually understood the information I was taking in." After completing his courses and earning his high school diploma, Brandon now plans to attend college for a career in the sports industry. "I think that for some people, having that second option is a blessing. I feel as though it gives people a second chance."
Some young adults require a flexible alternative to the traditional high school model because they have to help take care of their families or have families of their own to take care of. Other teens seek out alternatives to the traditional high school model because it simply wasn't working out for them due to social pressures.
"I would have never had my diploma if it wasn't for Penn Foster Online Program," writes Hellen, a 19-year old Latina, who started at Scranton High School in back 2011. "Ever since I started traditional high school my life took a crazy turn." Hellen spent the next few years in and out of school, feeling unmotivated and influenced by negative social pressures. "I knew that I was a smart kid with a lot potential. I had goals for myself; I wanted to be something in life. I was given the chance to go back, but by senior year I still doubted myself.' Though she tried again and again to recommit to earning her degree, she slipped through the cracks each time, eventually being expelled for failing out of school, even with the help of caring counselors and trying alternative co-op programs. When she heard about the Penn Foster program, Hellen decided to recommit once more, but this time, on her own terms. "I started Penn Foster in January, and I loved it. I worked at my own pace, at my own time, at any place. The online program definitely motivated me to work more constantly. Penn Foster also kept me out of trouble in school and kept me away from people who were a negative influence in my life." Hellen has since earned her high school diploma. "Today I am glad to say that I am employed with a good paying job that required me to show my high school diploma at my interview." She plans on becoming a Probation officer someday.
Offering Alternative Solutions for Students
A dropout retrieval program allowed for these former high school dropouts to study at their own pace, at their own time, in and out of the classroom. Pulling teens back into traditional class that has proven not to work for them in the past is not the answer. States should work with school districts to offer more flexible options for students who cannot be in a classroom 7 hours a day 5 days a week, or for students who need to be in a different environment in order to learn.