June. A month of high school celebrations in New York State. Last year, 169,000 students received their secondary school diplomas. Graduation rates remain a major benchmark in the bureaucracy of our education system. And they should be. According to NYSED, the graduation rate in 2018 was 80.2 percent - a slight trend upward in recent years.
Unfortunately, just over six percent of NYS high school students terminated their high school careers and lost their opportunity to walk across the stage and celebrate with family and friends. For these students, their more than decade-long journey in our schools could not culminate with a high school diploma.
And what should we make of the 12,736 students who leave school without a high school diploma? What should educators think? What should parents think? How should our educational bureaucracies respond? And, most importantly, what should the students think who did not receive their diploma?
Many believe the increased focus on graduation rates has incentivised a system of manipulation of credits and data. An unfortunate response from schools; yet one that should not seem unexpected. The graduation rate has become a statistical benchmark often rewarding districts rather than doing what is best for the student. The implementation of credit recovery, tutoring programs, dropout prevention alternative programs, and the hiring of academic coaches, along with other intervention strategies, is evidence of the degree to which schools emphasize the high school diploma. While effective for those schools wealthy enough to afford such interventions, these efforts have indirectly created an education system for at-risk students that teaches to the test - making information more important than knowledge and well-being.
A secondary school diploma is perceived as a primary goal for teenagers. And that diploma is what students should aspire to achieve. Yet the student who does not graduate should not be deemed a failure and stigmatized by the dropout label. Students today walk through a gauntlet of challenges and pressures. The dropout label is just another roadblock for these students. Why would educators dump the dropout stigma on these challenged young adults? By the time a student turns 18, the typical graduation age, that student has spent 72 percent of their life in our schools. Maybe the dropout rate is more about our educational systems than it is about the student who does not receive a diploma?
I taught socially/emotionally disadvantaged students in a public school for 36 years. Many of my students did not graduate. But when those students left school, I made certain they knew the secondary school journey was just one rung on the ladder of their life. If they did not make it across the graduation stage they could find success on another stage. I told my students to be strong and stay resilient. I wanted them to know I still believed in them.
Students who do not graduate can still make it in life. Often they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The road may not be as smooth without a high school diploma. There will be more detours and new challenges. But eventually, for most, the road straightens out. I told my students who left without a diploma that the game of life isn’t over if they don’t graduate - that they are still in the early innings.
I still remember the bouquet of flowers Steph’s mother sent to me when her daughter called it quits. Her note read, “Thanks for doing what you could.” I saw Steph years later at a concert. She is in management now at a top ranked hotel chain.
Katie recognized me recently. I didn’t recognize her. Teenagers can change so much in a 10-year span. I guess I don’t change, I just get old. “I’m a nurse now... and a Mom. I know you tried so hard to keep me in school but their was too much crap going on in my life back then.”
Tommy left in 11th grade. He owns his own tree service company now. Recently, his company did amazing work at my home removing three oversized trees.
“I got my GED a year after I left,” Nicole informed me excitedly when she saw me at the supermarket. “I’m a head chef now. I graduated from culinary school and even worked at Disney for four years. You always believed in me, Mr. Weinlein.”
Isn’t it ironic that adults who are supposed to be better equipped for decision making and commitment linger in a mire of a 50-percent divorce rate? A societal benchmark not even close to our graduation rate. Yet we no longer stigmatize people who get divorced. Since the 60s, acceptance and compassion have replaced the stigma of divorce. We need to do the same for our students who do not graduate.
Educators have a responsibility to help their students climb to the next rung on the ladder of their life - with or without a diploma. Don’t let the students who exit early feel dismissed or forgotten. Don’t let them limp away from their school crushed by the stigma of being labeled a dropout. As I write this piece there is an echo of U2’s Bono singing, “Just enough self esteem / to get me where I want to go.” That sentiment was always the benchmark that guided interactions with all my students.
Gregg Weinlein is a faculty member at CASDA. His writings have appeared in The English Journal, Education Weekly, Times Union, SAANYS, and others. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.