Former high school dropouts find new paths in and out of the classroom

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March 29th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – There are many programs dealing with high school dropout rates and truancy problems. But, have they been successful? We’ll hear from program directors and the students involved to see what strides are being made in and out of traditional academic settings, for part three of NET News series “State of Education.”

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Alex Pickerel sized up his future, and decided it was time to go back to high school. (Photo by Ben Bohall)

As the old saying goes, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

Alex Pickerel may have taken that sentiment to heart.

When we last checked in with Alex at the beginning of our series, we found a young man who reflected with regret on his decision to drop out of high school. Today, you’d find him in a new setting. He’s back at Lincoln’s North Star high school, but he hasn’t been sitting at a desk taking notes. He’s been doing some hands-on learning in Charmain Satree’s Construction Trades class.

“I finally grew up a little bit and decided to come back,” Pickerel said. “I’m glad I came back. I’m having a fun time I like to weld and stuff and we have (that) … I showed her what I could do and she was really amazed at it.”

Pickerel said he found his niche in one of the high school’s Career Training Education programs, or CTE. He was able to apply the experience he had received while out in the workforce to a course offered at the high school for credit.

Matt Hastings is data and research specialist for Nebraska Career Education.

“We see consistently lower levels of dropouts for career education students compared to Nebraska students as a whole,” Hastings said. “We don’t really have specific evidence to tell us why that is. But we do know in looking at some of the resources, like the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Pathways to Prosperity’ report, that many students do say that they drop out of school because they do not see relevance in the work that they are doing. We do know that for many of those students, that career education provides that relevance that they’re looking for.”

Pickerel agreed. He’s now a fifth-year senior, and said he hopes the work he’s been doing in class will translate well to doing welding work in his uncle’s shop after graduation.

“I like the work,” he said. “I’m learning everything, learning all the tricks and trades. I think I can succeed in it. With the welding here it’s good practice for me.”

Hastings said the program also provides a means for students to consider further education down the road – a goal that would have otherwise been difficult for dropouts.

“The President has called for all Americans to have some post-secondary education,” he said. “The reality is, if we’re not able to graduate from high school, it makes achieving that post-secondary education very challenging. If career education can provide a curriculum that provides more relevance for the students, re-engages them in education, or gets them engaged to begin with, we think that’s a win for Nebraska and we think that’s a win for Nebraska students.”

A General Equivalency Degree, or GED, has acted as an alternative to a high school diploma. Students can take a series of five subject tests in order to receive the degree. (Photo by Ben Bohall)

Some dropouts are finding a different way to obtain an education.

Nola Derby-Bennett is executive director for the HUB, a center in Lincoln that provides services for everything from homelessness to lack of education in young adults. They’ve also added GED prep courses. “When they come in, we do initial testing with them and determine where they are academically. Some kids can get through it in three to six months – that’s a rarity. Generally, I usually advise people to plan on at least a year,” she said.

A general equivalency degree, or GED, has acted as an alternative to a high school diploma. Students can take a series of five subject tests in order to receive the degree. It was traditionally designed to show if the student has high school-level academic ability.

Bennett said many of the center’s students have been taken aback by the amount of work obtaining a GED requires.

“A lot of time we see young people sort of come in and work really hard for three months or so, and then they kind of stall out a little bit because they feel like it should be going faster than it is,” she explained. “I always remind them: this is a process, it takes you four years to get through high school. You have to sometimes catch up, and really stick with it.”

Bennett added that the HUB has made it a priority to reach out to students who might get discouraged.

“Usually, once we can get them back in the door, then they move forward and usually are successful at that point,” she said.

Rachel Elston is a former student of the HUB who now attends classes at Southeast Community College in Lincoln. Like Pickerel, she decided to drop out of high school because of an unstable personal life. It didn’t take her long to realize she would have to get her life back on track, and looked to the HUB for help.

“I knew that I had to do it. It was not the easier route, because either way it’s hard,” she said. “You have to do the same tests, you have to do the same education. It’s hard. When I decided to stop making excuses for what I was doing or for why I couldn’t go to school is when I changed my life around.”

For Rachel Elston and Alex Pickerel, the path to receiving their high school diplomas or equivalents wasn’t an orthodox one. But while state lawmakers, advocates and education officials continue to find ways to combat high school dropout and truancy rates, some students have been left making the best of the opportunities available to them.

Editor’s note: Today’s story is the third in a three-part radio series on the state of education in Nebraska, culminating in a televised discussion program airing Thursday, March 29 at 7 p.m. CT on NET 2.

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