Specialized Extension Programs Make For Higher Graduation Rates
> 8/21/2007 12:00:38 PM

The need for a high school diploma in the current job market is absolutely critical. After adjusting for the value of the dollar, average incomes for earners without diplomas have dropped consistently over the past three decades: 2000 census reports listed the average individual income for high school dropouts at just over $16,000.  We cannot overstate the importance of completing the high school experience at all costs, and recent experiments in the New York City area confirm a common sense hypothesis: a far greater percentage of students will earn their high school diplomas when educators extend the period of time allowed for them to do so. The need for "transfer high schools" is very real: thousands of teens or young adults whose lack of a high school diploma has had dramatically negative effects on their prospects for employment and subsequent financial means have the desire to return to school, but they're often too old or have been absent from the school system for too long to re-enroll.

The number of American school districts in which students (particularly low-income minority students) are just as likely to drop out as they are to earn their diplomas is unacceptably high. New York's public school graduation rates, despite recent gains, still barely climb over 50%; the national average is around 66%. An eye-opening 2005 survey aimed to identify exactly which kids were slipping through the cracks and better find out why, discovering that the vast majority of dropouts are kids who've been held back, who are older than their classmates and who have too few credits to graduate in the immediate future. In fact, 4 out of 5 students who fit into these categories will not graduate.

New York's transfer high schools offer workable solutions to the problem, specializing in small classes that allow for more individual attention and reaffirmation of a common goal: graduation. For  night classes at independent Young Adult Borough Centers allow kids over 17 who are more than a year behind their peers in credits earned to gradually finish their degrees while living their everyday lives and (presumably) earning money at low-paying jobs. Dropout rates for these schools still hover around 45%, but how many of the remaining majority would have earned diplomas without them? By attending these programs, students are significantly increasing the chances that they will earn their diplomas; the schools also run on trimester schedules, further facilitating the graduation process. Relatively unencumbered by the bureaucratic webs that hinder the larger public schools, many of these programs also offer personal counselors, sponsored by local non-profit organizations, who try on an individual level to make the process friendlier for the kids involved. The more such encouragement they get, the more likely they are to gain from the experience. Most of the kids must also participate in practical (and necessary) Learning to Work programs designed to help ease their transition into the salaried world. An encouraging number also move beyond their high school diplomas: approximately 25% of the students at transfer schools and young adult programs go on to enroll in college.

Unfortunately, these are still American schools subject to the same standards as all others. They need to serve as exceptions to the rule. Following New York's model across the country would hardly amount to a waste of resources; the economic benefits of higher-earning high school grads would far outweigh the costs needed to get them there. While we work on improving the very structure of our school system, we cannot ignore those who are the easiest to overlook: struggling students who've fallen behind and don't realize exactly how much they've compromised themselves in the process. The education system cannot accomodate them after the age of 21, and by the time they reach the obvious conclusions, opportunity may have passed them by.

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