Second Chances for All: States Must Do More to Reengage Out of School Youth

Monday, November 16, 2015

By Nick Mathern

Lateasha Brutton completed high school, but she didn’t earn her high school diploma. Like many of her peers, Lateasha advanced to the next grade level each year but did not pass the required Alabama high school exit exams. She wants her diploma, but now at age 24, the only option available to the Lowndes County resident is a GED prep course.

I get phone calls every week from young people across the country who have experienced the harsh economic realities of the US job market and want to get back in school to earn their high school diploma. They are among the 20% of young people who don't graduate with their high school class each year.  And, unfortunately, the quality of opportunities that I can share with them is dictated entirely by the city and state they are calling from. 

Fortunately, high school re-engagement opportunities are growing around the country. Each year, a few more communities and states are recognizing that we cannot pursue equitable economic opportunity, or even meet our own workforce demands, if we don't provide meaningful options for the nearly one million young people who leave school without a diploma each year. GtCNN fully supports creative policies like Washington State's Open Doors, which encourages the development of community partnerships to reengage out of school youth and has led to the creation of dozens of programs serving thousands of students. 

Other states have followed suit: In 2013 the state of Mississippi passed Mississippi Works Dual Enrollment, a program encouraging school districts to develop partnerships with community colleges to enroll out-of-school youth in order to complete their diplomas and earn workplace skills. This past summer, both of their western neighbors, Arkansas and Louisiana, enacted re-engagement legislation. Utah also passed new "dropout recovery" legislation in 2015. These states join a growing list of states, either through regulation or legislation, that encourage the reenrollment of out-of-school youth. National League of Cities' Zachia Nazarzai has outlined some exemplars

Despite encouraging efforts in some states, progress has not been even. Bills in Alabama's Senate and House that would have allowed districts to re-enroll students up to age 21 didn't make it out of committee this year. And, additional reengagement bills were left pending at the end of the session in several other states. 

These laws are critical tools for the United States' effort to fix our badly leaking education pipeline. And, we've got a long way to go. Most of these bills provide optional fixes to school districts. We need more policies like Washington's, where students can opt into programs offered by neighboring districts when their district doesn’t provide reengagement options; and Utah's, which require districts to provide recovery services. 

We need these policies EVERYWHERE. To borrow a phrase from our good friends at Opportunity Nation: "Opportunity should not be dictated by zip code." GtCNN is committed to advocate for universal reengagement opportunities. We encourage all communities and states to assess the breadth and quality of options available for their young people to overcome their barriers and help them get back on a path to academic and economic success. 

Many thanks to Madeleine Webster of the National Conference of State Legislatures (@NCSLorg) for her support in tracking new legislation in state houses across the country.


Nick Mathern is Associate Vice President of Policy & Partnership Development. Since 2005, he has brokered agreements between colleges, school districts, and state education agencies in order to connect communities with training, professional development, and evaluation services, as well as replication and implementation of the Gateway to College program model. Read more.

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