How Technology and Choice Give High School Drop-Outs the Second Chance They Deserve

I am a high school drop-out.

Despite graduating from college with honors, earning two graduate degrees and professional success, my status as a high school drop-out is difficult to admit, even to myself. It fills me with embarrassment and shame due to common misconceptions, namely that we drop-outs are dumb, lazy, apathetic and untalented. We’re not.

As our nation marks National Dropout Prevention Month in October, my message to society is not to discard and forget about high school drop-outs, but to instead empower them with the second chance at diplomas they so richly deserve. They don’t require pity. They do require school choice options. Online charter schools serve as a critical last resort for many students who are simply out of options. These schools welcome society’s most vulnerable youth and offer them another shot at education, gainful employment and financial success.

My story is not unique. Like many high school drop-outs, my life as a youngster was marked by family instability, generational poverty, teen pregnancy and yes, violence. What is unique is my outcome in life. I desperately want similar successful outcomes for students who face the same sorts of challenges I did and who simply need a safe, nurturing alternative to their local brick-and-mortar school.

Online charter schools provide such alternatives but are under siege in the court of public opinion when it comes to graduation rates. Such criticism is overly-simplistic. You see, graduation rates are standardly measured by the number of students earning diplomas four years after ninth grade. However, both research and common sense tell us that every year of high school matters for students who exhibit academic and personal progress. I am living proof. I did finally receive a GED at age 21. Because many of those enrolled come from severely challenged personal backgrounds like me, students at online charter schools sometimes graduate in five or six years. They do graduate. That is the important thing. Sadly, these schools don’t receive credit for the diplomas these students earn, thus grossly handicapping these schools’ rankings and rendering them easy targets for unfair criticism.

Here’s one result that cannot be ignored. Though charter schools represent only 7 percent of public schools in the United States, they make up more than 30 percent of the top 100 high schools according to the 2016 U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools ranking.

One-size-fits-all school is not the answer to drop-out prevention because traditional school models don’t work for all students. Today’s students deserve a wide variety of quality options to stay in or return to high school and take strides toward graduation. Bold experimentation and technological innovation are necessary to fully realize an educational system that truly serves all students.