Often Overlooked in Debate Over Dropouts, High-School 'Hang-Ins' Focus of New Attention

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New York City--For many students in New York City's public schools, high school is no longer a four-year affair.

Just ask Mamadou Cisse, a 21-year-old immigrant from the Ivory Coast who hopes to graduate from Martin Luther King Jr. High School here in June.

Mr. Cisse, who had to learn English as he repeated a year of high school and make up other coursework, works almost 30 hours a week in a sporting-goods store in Harlem. He has had to motivate him mediate family is in the country.

"I came here for opportunity," he says. "There is nothing better than school."

Although educators here have long bemoaned the city's high dropout rate, new attention is being paid to the other side of the equation: students like Mr. Cisse who decide to remain in school for more than four years in order to earn their diploma.

Often hampered by chaotic family lives, poverty, limited proficiency in English, and a severe shortage of course credits, these students must also cope with a social environment geared to younger students, and greater demands on their after-school time.

To accommodate such students, and to allow them to persevere and meet their educational goals, schools must provide greater flexibility in their programs, educators here say.

"I don't think that it is necessarily a bad thing for students not to graduate in four years," says Noreen Connell, the executive director of the local Educational Priorities Panel, which sponsored a recent report on students who take more than four years to graduate from high school. "I think there should be flexibility, and not a cookie-cutter, model of education."

Often overlooked in the debate over dropouts, the issue of over-age students is likely to receive greater attention by policymakers as states develop new ways of measuring graduation rates to gauge progress toward the national goal of a 90 percent high-school graduation rate by the year 2000.

The traditional method of counting dropouts--comparing a class entering high school with those who leave four years later--counts as "dropouts" those who remain for more than four years, educators point out.

New data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census suggest that a substantial number of youths fit that category. As of October 1989, according to the bureau's Current Population Survey, 24 percent of all 18-year-olds were still in high school.

Additionally, 5 percent of 19-year-olds, and 1 percent of 20- and 21-year-olds, were also still attempting to finish secondary school, the survey found.

In its report on New York City schools, the EPP--a local coalition of religious, advocacy, education, and public-affairs groups--found that students are actually more likely to "hang in" than drop out.

The report, which was released last year, found that 25 percent of the 71,484 students who were part of the city's class of 1986 were still enrolled after their graduation date. Fifteen percent of the class was enrolled beyond the fifth year, and 5 percent were on school rolls beyond their sixth year, the report found.

In contrast, 22 percent had dropped out by June 1986, and 41 percent had either graduated on time or received a General Educational Development certificate.

The remaining students in the class had either been discharged or had transferred out.
The report also found that about a quarter of the students in the classes of 1987 and 1988 remained in school for more than four years.

According to the report, students typically have to spend more than four years in school because they fail many of their courses. In the fall of 1989, one-third of the city's high-school students failed three or more of their classes, and two-thirds failed at least one course, the report states.

Despite the large percentage of students who need more than four years to complete school, many school administrators surveyed for the report contend they were not concerned about this trend.

Such an attitude, says Ms. Connell, should be changed. "Our point of view is that there shouldn't be as many [older students], period," she says, adding that "the focus is so much on dropouts" that they are not looking at ways to ensure that students graduate in four years.

One school that is trying to meet the needs of these nontraditional students is Mr. Cisse's alma mater-to-be, the Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan. Although located in a primarily white and affluent area on the trendy Upper West Side, the vast majority of students here are from poor and working-class neighborhoods throughout the city. About two-thirds of the student population is black, most of whom are African-American but also including a smattering of Haitians and Africans. About a fifth of the school is Hispanic, predominantly Dominican. The remaining 10 percent of the student population is Asian, the majority of whom are from Southeast Asia. Caesar Previdi, the school's principal, says that while he believes students should really complete school in four years, he does not "view a kid who needs to spend more time as a failure."

"There may be nothing wrong with them," he says. "Maybe they can't do it in he regular system we set out for them."

To Mr. Previdi, the challenge is to create flexible programs and policies that help students get out on time. Students who in junior high school, have a difficult time fitting into the high-school culture, he points out.

"I think the problem is that the high school is geared to the 13- to 18-year-old," he contends. "Culturally and socially, it is difficult for 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds to go to high school."

Programs also need to acknowledge that older students have a much more practical orientation than average-age students, he says. "The 18-, 19-year-old says, 'Mr. Previdi, tell me in 25 words or less what I need to know to pass the test,"' the principal says.

Because of the particular demands of second-language learning, the school's English-as-a-second-language and bilingual-education programs tend to have a higher-than-average concentration of students in their fifth or sixth year of high school, officials point out. Together, the two programs enroll almost one-fifth of King's 3,200 students. About 10 percent of these students will need an additional year or two of school, the programs' coordinators say.

"When the kids come in, we tell them they are not graduating on time," says Robin Cohen, the ESL coordinator. Students in such programs need additional time, she notes, because courses taken in other countries often do not correspond with those required for a New York State diploma. Another problem is that students get only one credit for English-language classes, which run for two class periods.

Nonetheless, Ms. Cohen says, students are willing to put the additional time into school because they are very motivated to learn English.

F. Enzo Sanchez, a 19-year-old bilingual-education student who is in his sixth and final year of high school, says he lost time and credits when he left school to return to his native Venezuela.

He returned to school, he says, to learn English and create a better life for himself.

"I want to go to college and have one or two careers," Mr. Sanchez says. "Since childhood, I wanted to be a big man."

His friend, 19-year-old Alex Martinez, says through a translator that a desire to English prompted him to return to school after taking a leave of absence from King High for an extended visit with his family in Peru.

"He says it is an emotional thing for him to study," the translator says. "If he goes to work [instead of school] and learns that job, he'll learn that job and nothing else.''

Educators at King note that older students also typically work longer hours after school, have more family responsibilities, and require more practical coursework than average-age students. As a result, many seek out the academic alternatives available under the district's ConCurrent Options program. These allow students to pursue independent study, internships, "P.M." school, and specialized coursework part-time at another high school.

At King, one of the more popular options for over-age students is to take vocational classes in the afternoon at the School of Cooperative Technical Education across town. There, students from many home schools learn such skills as word processing, building construction and repair, and gas and electric welding.

During a school-bus ride between King and the vocational program, Chantel Warren, 18, recalls that she decided to resume her education last year after missing a lot of school because of family problems.

"I needed some more direction," she says. "I needed to get my life together."

"I didn't want to become another statistic," she says.

Other over-age students at the vocational and technical program say they wanted to stay in school to avoid the problems faced by peers and family members who were dropouts.

"I have quite a few friends who have dropped out," notes Dale Sommerville, 18, a fifth-year senior at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx. "I cannot see them carrying on with a normal life."

"Those who are not dead are selling drugs," says Dale, who had to make up credits when he came from Jamaica to New York in the 9th grade. "I felt this was the best way."

His friends, he says, are not always supportive of his efforts to stay in school.

"They keep on trying to make me feel like I'm missing something," he says. "To achieve something, I can sacrifice this so-called fun."

Vol. 10, Issue 19, Page 6, 7

Published in Print: January 30, 1991, as Often Overlooked in Debate Over Dropouts, High-School 'Hang-Ins' Focus of New Attention
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