Hacking High School “Dropout” Challenge with Choice & Voice for New Pathways

Scott Emerick
Aristotle said, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” Almost 2500 years later, adults often attempt to sell learners on the sweetness of the fruit that comes from education. However, everything we know about the adolescent mind indicates we should spend less time describing distant future rewards and more time diversifying the root pathways learners can choose to reach their own goals.
Learning and preparing for future career and leadership pathways is inherently hard work that requires real effort and growth mindset. However, the work of learning must include agency for students to choose and personalize pathways that taste sweetest to them.
US education leaders are celebrating an 80% high school graduation rate. We should appreciate progress increasing graduation rates, but we should recognize that one in five high school students are not graduating. Nearly six million 16-to-24 year olds in the US are not connected to work or school (Opportunity Youth).
Young people are not leaving school because they are not smart enough to learn rigorous content. They are not leaving because they have never been implored to stay in school for the distant promise of future rewards and the sweet fruit of great jobs.
Young people leave school because of complex life circumstances and personal or family barriers. Others leave because schools intentionally or unintentionally push them out with antiquated and racist approaches to school discipline and suspensions. Many others leave because how they learn, how they demonstrate learning, and what they most care about is not connected to their experiences in school.
We have predictive data for how attendance, truancy, grades and credit accumulation correlate to dropout decisions. When these data, or young people’s social-emotional needs, or their complex life circumstances, or their relationships with caring adults, or some combination of these factors indicate a young person is in danger of dropping out, we should dramatically change the conversation. Heart-to-heart talks imploring students to “buckle down” usually require them to do so within their current learning environment. Asking learners to work harder within the same environment rarely changes behavior.

Student choice in finding; and voice in co-creating, authentic and personalized learning experiences within deeply connected communities can change behaviors, hearts, and minds.

If students do not find these experiences in their schools, we should empower them with options for new pathways like YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School (YBPCS).
Every year, approximately 220 young people who dropped out of high school enroll at YBPCS. At the beginning of their experience, students participate in an intensive Mental Toughness Orientation (MTO). During MTO, staff and students engage in a shared process to create and understand community norms, expectations, and supports. Young people choose to engage in a cohesive mini-community of adults and young people who deeply know each other and sincerely commit to each other’s shared success.
Early in the YBPCS experience, students choose to participate in a vocational pathway focused on healthcare, green building, or business administration scholars (including technology and customer service excellence training). Employer partners like Starbucks, Saint Gobain and dozens of others are deeply engaged in helping build these pathways, providing real on-the-job training experiences, and ensuring vocational training aligns with the skills, competencies, certificates and credentials that matter most.
When YBPCS students stumble and make mistakes, they are rarely suspended from school. Instead, young people work with staff to choose how to make amends to the learning community they damaged. The Director of Student Life helps establish a culture where restorative justice is understood and valued, but all staff and young people choose to buy into a process for holding themselves accountable to each other.
At the end of the school year, every YBPCS student chooses to participate in one of ten bridge programs designed to improve the transition from high school graduate to college student, employee, and community leader.
YBPCS staff members choose to believe that all students can learn and lead. They choose to design and continually redesign a comprehensive approach that proactively meets the complex needs of all learners. Staff members from seven departments come together on a weekly basis to discuss individual student achievements, barriers and goals. Each conversation leads to action plans for how multiple staff members, from different vocational, counseling, and instructional perspectives, can support the full needs of learners.
Young people vote with their feet. Last year, 800 young people applied for 220 spaces for enrollment at YBPCS. Fortunately, Philadelphia benefits from an extensive ecosystem of quality opportunities for young people who leave high school – Philadelphia Youth Network, Philadelphia Reengagement Center, and Gateway to College, among others. These programs benefit from support from the Mayor and the school district to continue improving and growing.
This experience in Philadelphia should become our norm instead of our outlier.

We need momentum for new campaigns, innovations, and research that reimagines education and career pathways that empower learners, especially those failed by first chance schools.

We need broad public engagement from adults, employers, educators and young people in campaigns like the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, Opportunity Youth United, Grads of Life, Opportunity Nation, and the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund.
We need innovative approaches that reach young leaders with human driven technology solutions like MyBestBets, LRNG, and iMentor that connect learners with emerging pathways, engaging ways to demonstrate learning/competencies, and caring adults.
We need research analyzing blended learning approaches that work best for Opportunity Youth – America’s Promise is releasing a report on this subject in March 2016. By designing our instructional approaches and supportive educational technology for the students who previously struggled most in schools, we can build solutions work best for all learners.
When a caring adult and a young person believe the relationship between a learner and their school is not working and beyond repair, we should provide “Hack Your Own Pathway” opportunities. Counselors and caring adults should introduce struggling learners who are planning to or have already dropped out, to a range of quality alternative school, high school equivalency training, vocational training, blended learning, competency badging, and community-national service options.

Options should exist at comprehensive programs with strong culture, universal design for reaching all learners, and talented staff who demonstrate how much they know while demonstrating how deeply they care for young people.

I am not encouraging young people to drop out of high school. I am inviting young people into real conversations with caring adults. If you have left, or are seriously thinking about leaving, high school, please find a counselor or adult you trust and ask for help finding a pathway that works for you. Ask them if YouthBuild, Gateway to College, Reengagement Centers, YearUp, members of the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, or other local options, within or beyond high schools, might represent a better pathway for your future.
Thank you to the young leaders, and the adult innovators supporting them, who are turning bitter roots into flavorful new pathways.
About “GenDIY”
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)– how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love – on The Huffington Post and GettingSmart.com. This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:


Scott Emerick is the Senior Vice President for Education, Career, and Service Pathways at YouthBuild USA. Follow Scott on Twitter, @Scott_Emerick.

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