Older Students Make Presence Felt in Classes

Demographic Shifts, New School Roles Cited

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High school isn't just for kids anymore.

Take Carlota Palomba, a senior who will turn 20 in December. She drops her 2-year-old daughter off at day care so she can join her adolescent classmates at East Boston High School.

Or her classmate James Burrell, who is back in school this fall after serving eight months on an armed-robbery conviction. He'll be 19 when he graduates next spring.

The nation's population as a whole is aging, and the ranks of secondary school students are no exception. The percentage of 12th graders in U.S. public schools who are 19, 20, or 21 years old has nearly doubled in a decade, from 4 percent in 1984 to 7 percent in 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Boston alone, more than 600 seniors—16 percent of the senior class this fall—are 19 or older.

The growing number of older students is one of many ways in which America's schools are changing. This fall, the number of students in U.S. schools will reach a record 51.7 million students, surpassing the previous high-water mark set in 1971-72.

The soaring enrollment leaves educators with many of the same problems their predecessors faced 25 years ago—lack of money, a shortage of classrooms, high demand for teachers. But the new generation of students has also created a host of new challenges that will require dramatically different solutions.

Special Attention

Experts cite a number of causes for the rise in the number of older students: increased immigration, the growing ranks of special education students, and a surge in the number of children who enter kindergarten at a later age.

Some educators also say the increase reflects a new willingness in schools to work around students' family and social problems, and shows that dropout-prevention and alternative-education programs are working.

Though few district officials consider the still relatively small number of older students a significant drain on their schools' resources, they say that these students often require special attention. Because many older students are parents or recent immigrants, for example, they often need more counseling than younger students and services such as day care for their own children.

Every state requires students to attend school until they are at least 16 years old, but there is no age limit for earning a high school diploma, according to Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo.

A 35-year-old, for example, can technically enroll in a public high school, but it may not be free. Every state guarantees a free education for students from age 3 to age 21, but some can charge tuition to students who are older than that.

Immigration a Factor

The recent surge of immigrants to the United States in the last decade—largely from Latin America, the Caribbean region, and Asia—is one of the chief explanations for the rise in older students.

For many immigrant students, language is the main barrier to graduation. A report from the U.S. Bureau of the Census earlier this year shows that 32 million U.S. citizens speak a language other than English at home, a 40 percent hike since 1980.

Language was only one problem for Marc-Arthur Jean-Philippe, a 21-year-old senior at Boston's West Roxbury High School. Before coming to the United States, political unrest in his native Haiti also delayed his progression through school.

The tall, quiet 12th grader said that after he saw anti-democracy soldiers shoot a fellow student on his way to class one day in the early 1990s, he avoided his Port-au-Prince school for months. In the three years since he arrived in Boston, he has spent a lot of time catching up.

"Sometimes I think I'm too old to be in high school," the 21-year-old said as he climbed the steps of the modern brick school on the city's west side. "But if you want to be somebody in this society, you have to go to school."

Dropout Prevention Working

The growing population of special education students has also swelled the number of older students, experts say. In the last decade, the number of special education students has jumped 20 percent, from 4.3 million in 1984 to 5.3 million in 1994.

Under federal law, those students are entitled to schooling until they are 22.

Students are also graduating later because of family and social problems. More teenagers are having children, going to jail, and changing schools these days.

But some educators note that the growing number of older students is a positive sign that programs designed to prevent students from dropping out are working. In 1994, 10 percent of the population ages 16 to 24 were dropouts, a substantial decline from 14 percent in 1980, according to the Education Department.

During that time, many schools have created parenting classes and resource centers for young mothers to draw them back to school after they have a child.

"Five years ago, these young ladies dropped out and that was it," said Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C. "Now there are more opportunities for them."

In addition, districts have built hundreds of alternative schools in the past decade to handle the increasing number of students with discipline problems. Such schools, which offer flexible schedules, tend to graduate students who are a year or two older.

"We have car thieves, muggers, incarcerated youngsters who were away for a year," said George Stack, the special education director at East Boston High, which has an alternative program within the school. "And when they get out of jail, they return to us."

As Mr. Burrell straggled into his health class one morning, he said he returned to school because he wasn't able to keep up with his schoolwork in jail. "I came back to school because I had to get my education," he said.

Later Enrollment

Another significant reason more students are graduating later is that many parents are waiting longer to enroll their children in kindergarten, said Mary Frays, a researcher with the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. Many parents believe that at 5 years old, some children are not developmentally ready for school.

Though it is unclear how much money it ultimately costs to educate students beyond the normal 13 years, states and districts seem willing to absorb it. Most states generally do not require students to shift into an adult-education program when they reach a certain age, according to ECS researchers.

And though 25 states allow districts to charge students tuition once they turn 21, few districts actually do so because the number of adult students is negligible, said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

"Now it's not a serious issue," she said.

In some ways, the older students may even be a benefit to schools, some educators say.

Mature students often are more motivated to finish their studies, and therefore may promote a more studious atmosphere, said Kathy Christie, a researcher at the ECS. "It's so wonderful," she said, "to see these kids who haven't been successful in the past tell other kids to get their noses in their books."

Vol. 16, Issue 03, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: September 18, 1996, as Older Students Make Presence Felt in Classes
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