In the previous segment of our three-part series, we heard about students who leave the traditional public school system for so-called alternative schools. But more and more teens are choosing adult education programs instead, often to finish school more quickly. In the final segment, WNPR’s Neena Satija asks if these students are getting the same education.
(Noise from a classroom; students talking with the teacher)
This is Cara Mortillo’s algebra class. It’s got about 20 students in it, most of them between the ages of 16 and 18. In the course of an hour, Mortillo teaches the students about the distributive property in algebraic expressions and equations. She asks questions; some students call out answers. A few sleep through class with heads on desks. Others play with their smartphones.
It seems like a typical teenage high school experience. But it’s not. These students are taking a class at the New Haven Adult Education Center, as part of the high school credit diploma program the center offers.
STUDENT: A decimal equation? That's going to be difficult, I never did a decimal equation before.
So why aren’t these kids in high school? Mortillo says there are many reasons.
MORTILLO: “It’s a good question. It’s a good question, I mean, some of them come because of attendance policy issues, you know, they have too many absences. Some come because of fighting. Some come because you know, they just can’t get up, they have problems with other students…”
In Connecticut, more than 5000 students between the ages of 16 and 18 are enrolled in adult education classes. In many districts, teens make up a quarter or more of enrollment in such classes – and those numbers are rising every year. Andy Fleischmann, who chairs the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee, thinks some districts are pushing their most difficult students out of high school hallways and into adult education classrooms.
FLEISCHMANN: “Once a child has left high school to move into adult ed, they no longer count as a school district is tallying its scores on the CAPT test. They no longer count as the school district is calculating its high school dropout rate. So districts have been using this as kind of an unfair escape valve.”
16-year-old Mariela Galindo thinks she’s one of those students. Galindo was involved in a gang dispute at her high school and was told she could either leave or get expelled. Administrators at the adult education program told her she’s almost ready to take the GED test and get her diploma that way. But she misses high school.
GALINDO: “I used to do sports there, cheerleading…It’s not the same here. I miss the activities that we used to do, like art, gym, and all that.”
Laura McCargar works for the Hartford-based “A Better Way Foundation.” During a year-long study she conducted of Connecticut teens in alternative and adult education programs, she was shocked to find so many teens in programs that she says are grossly under-resourced and not meant for kids.
MCCARGAR: “Adult education programs were created in general to serve adults who are looking to complete their education. What’s come to happen is that it’s become sort of alternative by default -- an alternative in practice for students that are struggling in mainstream school systems.”
But some say adult education is actually the perfect placement for struggling students. 18-year-old Dhalia Torres lives in Waterbury. After suffering from depression her sophomore year of high school, she missed so many classes that her school told her she’d have to repeat a year. She decided to earn her remaining credits at the adult education center, which she likes better.
TORRES: “This school is much better. At least in this school I get to actually come to class, have time to go get a job..."
Torres never did any extra-curricular activities at her regular high school. Now, she’s taking art and drama.
17-year-old Seallina Mitchell left her high school in New Haven because administrators told her she had too many absences and would have to repeat a year. Now, she can get her diploma on time. But that’s largely because in adult education, 60 hours of instruction will get her one credit. That would take 120 hours in a regular high school. So does Mitchell still think she’s getting the same level of education?
MITCHELL: “I’m not even going to lie and say yeah…because no, but. I feel as if, you learn what you learn at a regular high school but you’re only learning some of it. It’s kind of cheating you when you get an education, a little bit, but you’re getting it still, I guess. At least I’m still getting my diploma, I don't care."
And program administrators think that some teens may actually get more out of adult education than high school, despite the difference in hours of instruction. Vincent Del Pritt of the New Haven program says in traditional high schools, teachers often spend as much as 15 minutes taking attendance in a 45-minute period.
DEL PRITT: “You’ve already lost a third of the time. So, you’re talking about 120 hours and you lost a third of it right there. Pretty much every single day. You walk into classes here, they’re not allowed in after five minutes.”
But that type of approach doesn’t work for many who didn’t succeed in regular high school. In many districts, less than half of students in the credit-diploma program graduate each year. Often, they end up dropping out altogether.
Del Pritt says the data doesn’t reflect the difficulties that students overcome while in the program. Many who drop out later return.
DEL PRITT: “And it may not be this semester, it may not even be this year. But when they do come back, they realize, this is where I can succeed.”
Still, few think it’s a good thing that so many teens are enrolled in adult education. In Groton, nearly 90 percent of students in the district’s adult education program are teens. Co-director Guy Patalano says that’s partly because Groton doesn’t have an alternative school, and that the program only has a few dozen students overall.
PATALANO: “Yeah I would definitely love to see more of them in school. But I want to be here for the ones that can’t.”
Patalano wishes his students could play on a sports team and get all of the resources and support that come with high school. After all, the state spends about $13000 per public school student each year. It spends only $1600 on adult education students.
For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.