Thousands of public school students in Connecticut don’t get their diplomas each year, but only some are called “dropouts.” So what happens to the others? This is the first of a three-part series on how kids leave the school system without officially “dropping out.”
Jane is 17 years old, and still hasn’t passed the eighth grade. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy, and she doesn’t want to give the name of her school. Jane repeated eighth grade twice and was suspended multiple times for behavior issues. On her third try of eighth grade last year, she went to school on her birthday and got some upsetting news.
JANE: “I remember they called me to the office, and they told me to wait in the counselor’s office. And I was thinking to myself, ‘what’s going on? Am I going to get suspended again?’ and somebody came in the office and said, ‘you have to leave.’ I’m like,‘why?’"
Jane wasn’t doing well in school. She couldn’t grasp concepts and ended up in daily arguments with teachers and other students. But instead of helping Jane, her family alleges, the school unfairly pushed her out. Her 26-year-old sister Jenna, whose name has also been changed, says the situation came to a head during a meeting with school administrators.
JENNA: “It was like, ‘she’s going to be 16 this year, what are you guys planning on doing?’ And we were like, ‘what do you mean? She’s in school, what are we going to do? We’ve been doing everything we can.’ They’re like, ‘No, she can’t stay in school past her 16th birthday.’”
According to Laura McCargar, who works for the Hartford-based “A Better Way Foundation,” cases like Jane’s are common in Connecticut. In a press conference last month attended by dozens of teachers, students, administrators and probation officers across the state, she announced the results of a year-long examination of how Connecticut’s struggling students end up leaving public schools. Sometimes, it’s their choice, or they’re expelled for serious reasons. But often, McCargar alleges, they’re coerced or counseled to leave. She drew from her experiences working at an afterschool program in the state, where she’d have conversations with students that might go something like this.
MCCARGAR: ‘I don’t go to high school anymore.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, my principal told me that I can’t be here anymore.’ ‘Well what do you mean? You should be a high school student.’”
McCargar says some schools advise their most difficult students to leave so they don’t have to deal with their low test scores and poor behavior. So they pass off the student to alternative or adult education programs, which are often under-resourced and aren’t as closely monitored by the state.
School administrators say the situation is far more complicated, and that the students who leave high school under these circumstances need serious help. Joe Cirasuolo is Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
CIRASUOLO: “Students aren’t being coerced into going to something. What they’re being told is, ‘you’re not making it in the present system and in some cases you’re not making it and you’re disrupting it for other kids as well. And so what we’d like to do is give you an alternate program.”
The school did offer Jane two alternatives: an alternative education program, or adult education. But Michelle Fica, an attorney at Connecticut Legal Services, said the school didn’t inform Jane and her family of all of their options. Fica says Jane could have asked her school for a special education evaluation, to see if she needed extra help the school would legally have to provide. She could have insisted on the right to an expulsion hearing if the school really wanted to kick her out. But her family didn’t realize they had those options.
FICA: “Parents don’t know what their rights are. Parents don’t know the difference between the alternative ed schools and adult ed versus a regular ed school and what that means for their kid in the future.”
Fica’s office is handling Jane’s case, along with dozens of other ones like it that come in every year. In some instances, students feel they were pushed out because of fines imposed by school districts. Waterbury has a policy of fining students $25/day for being truant. Fica says she once got a call from a distraught mother who was hit with nearly a thousand dollars in fines.
FICA: “Basically these fines kept adding up and adding up, and when she called here she was at the point of withdrawing her child from school because she didn’t know what else to do.”
Waterbury spokesperson Nancy Vaughan said the district imposes truancy fines as a last resort, after making dozens of personal phone calls to the student and family, and even home visits.
Joe Cirasuolo of the superintendents’ association says he needs to see more evidence that districts are pushing students out. He has a hard time believing school administrators don’t have the best interests of students at heart.
CIRASUOLO: “What that says is that people at the high school level, their motive is less than honorable, frankly. And I’d have to see the evidence that supports that. I’ve never seen it in my years in education.”
And, the data’s hard to track down. The state doesn’t track students in alternative schools, and students in adult education are tracked in a different database altogether. So, it’s impossible to know how many may have been pushed out of their schools. No matter the number, state representative Andy Fleischmann wants push-outs to stop entirely.
FLEISCHMANN: “If it’s happening in just one instance, in one city, and a couple of instances in another city, that’s too many. How widespread is the problem? I think we need more research on that. But I only needed to hear a few stories of actual students to know that I didn’t want to live in a state that treated students that way.”
Education advocates are divided on how to solve the problem. Some say education reform in the traditional public schools will prevent students from getting to a point where they might be pushed out. For right now, however, there are thousands of students enrolled in alternative and adult education programs in Connecticut, and it’s hard to know how they’re doing.
In the next segment, we’ll profile two alternative education programs in Connecticut that bring struggling students from big public high schools into smaller classrooms.