Now, as the graduation season comes to a close, Durnil's op-ed piece is being posted here for SYF blog visitors to read and share.
May 2, 2012
3 best practices for building strong non-traditional education programs.
When President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address called for every state to require students to stay in school until age 18, I, like many passionate believers in the power of public education, considered it to be a significant gesture. I’m reminded of his call to action as the country enters another graduation season.
Certainly, increasing the dropout age can play an integral role in addressing the nation’s staggering dropout rate – a student leaves school by their own choice every 29 seconds in this country.
But while Mr. Obama endorsed a meaningful first step toward dropout reduction in his January speech, the policy he wants to pursue would have no teeth unless it is complimented by non-traditional programs that target student populations who can’t find success in traditional classroom settings, whether they are 15 or 18 years old.
Only by bolstering dropout age requirements with innovative education programming that engages at-risk students and secures their commitment to classroom success will the country find its antidote to the dropout plague consuming its communities, particularly those that are urban and low-income.
So what does a successful alternative program with the ability to reengage the most disillusioned students look like?
First, the programs must offer unparalleled flexibility. Too often, dropout students have the will to succeed but challenging personal circumstances have slammed the door on their potential to achieve. For students who are teenage single parents, working full time to support impoverished families, or in and out of hospitals to battle serious illnesses, the 8 to 3 o’clock school day simply does not work. If non-traditional programs are to prove successful in reaching these kinds of students, they must remove the regimented framework that can snuff out success, which can be done while still demanding consistent participation and engagement on the part of the student.
Second, non-traditional programs should create learning environments that are separate from the populations at a district’s traditional schools. At my organization, Simon Youth Foundation, we partner with public school districts to build and sustain alternative schools in shopping malls. Whatever the chosen site, the effect of the classroom location must make students feel safe, promote understanding, and operate with student-to-teacher ratios lower than 15 to 1. This creates an environment where a student receives personalized attention and can focus on the school work rather than the social structures and interactions that often threaten or detract from performance.
Third, alternative education programs must work in concert, not competition, with local public school districts. In the ongoing debate about how to best reform the country’s public school systems, it is often lost on the most negative of commentators that public school districts are serving the communities and populations that are most in need and most at-risk. Programs that compete with public schools, and in many cases siphon vital attention and fiscal resources in the process, further impair districts’ abilities to serve their students, particularly those who are most at risk for slipping through the cracks and dropping out. This is why private, public, for-profit, and not-for-profit organizations must throw their support behind and align with public school districts, bringing to bear their organizational resources to help public schools develop and sustain novel non-traditional programs that activate student potential. This approach will ultimately improve not only the quality of life for students but the viability of the communities that both the students and organizations call home by helping secure the next generation of community-engaged professionals.
While President Obama’s public support of such measures is a welcomed development, an increase of the student dropout age to 18 is certainly not the silver bullet that will slay our nation’s dropout epidemic.
As the country celebrates another graduation season, I implore the nation’s thought and policy leaders to consider pursuing non-traditional education programs that operate in accord with public school districts and are flexible in their teaching structures and unique in their locations. Committing to these strategies will give more U.S. families reason to celebrate in the graduation seasons to come.
J. Michael Durnil, Ph.D.
President and CEO
Simon Youth Foundation