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The economic cost associated with dropping out of high school – a reality faced by 1.2 million students annually – is enormous: dropouts earn, on average, $9,000 less annually than high school graduates, $19,000 less annually than those with associates’ degrees, and $25,372 less annually than those with bachelors’ degrees according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The costs are not only economic: mired in poverty, dropouts are also more likely to be involved in criminal activity, have poorer health, and shorter life spans than those who successfully complete high school.
Here’s a secret: students who drop out want a chance at high school and college graduation. Unfortunately, they lack options that will set them up for success. Alternative education programs, one route for out-of-school students looking to return to school are not held accountable for delivering great academic results that will meaningfully change students’ economic futures. One survey of alternative schools found that the average length of the school day was 5.5 hours; only 4% of schools in the same study offered college-level coursework. Rigorous academics are the exception, rather than the norm, in alternative education.
The General Educational Development (GED) program is another popular choice for teenagers looking to recommit to their education. Research shows, however, that earning a GED does not substantially increase one’s economic viability: male GED earners actually make 1% less per hour than high school dropouts, while female GED earners make only 1.7% more than their dropout counterparts. The two most viable options for former dropouts and other students who have not succeeded in traditional schools are really not viable at all.
Massachusetts is not immune to the dropout crisis: in the class of 2010-11, 14,200 students throughout the state dropped out of high school. If these students wanted to re-enter school, the available education options would unlikely salvage their economic potential. In Springfield, for instance, alternative schools post average 10th grade MCAS scores of 30% advanced/proficiency in English language arts and 19% advanced/proficiency in mathematics. Contrastingly, statewide scores are 84% advanced/proficiency in English and 77% advanced/proficiency in mathematics.
Simply put, there are not enough high-quality, college-preparatory schools available to serve the thousands of dropouts and struggling students in Massachusetts. The charter school movement, which has significantly altered the educational landscape across the state, is concentrated on younger students. More teachers, more educational leaders, and more schools need to address the pressing needs of older, at-risk youth, and they must start now. We cannot wait any longer to prove it’s possible for all students to succeed.
 Many alternative schools do not publicly release MCAS scores due to small testing cohort size; thus, there is not comparable data available for Boston, Chelsea, Lawrence, etc. alternative schools.
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