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Maryland lacks alternative education options [Commentary]

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A recent article, "Baltimore foster care youths get diploma in a day in Philadelphia," Nov. 24) describing the referral of youths in foster care to a high school diploma program in Pennsylvania, highlights one of the glaring deficiencies in Maryland's educational programs — the lack of educational options for students in high school. While Maryland may have the highest ranking school system in the nation, its one-size-fits all approach to educating high school students leaves many of our most at-risk students without reasonable options for securing a high school diploma.

In the case of older teens living in foster care, many of them have attended many different schools in multiple school systems. Because they lack a consistent education, they fail to earn credit in courses they are otherwise capable of passing. At 18 years of age, many of them still need 2-3 years of schooling to meet Maryland graduation requirements. Many other teens placed at risk because of poverty, unmet mental health needs or educational disabilities, face similar challenges.

Educators who serve these students have long advocated for a more personalized educational approach with multiple diploma options for students. In most school systems, funding is focused on developing a new curriculum (based on the Common Core standards), related standardized tests (the PARCC assessments) and other programs that do not optimize personalization. Instead, many current initiatives focus on developing one standard that all must meet. Adult life is not like this. Why should our schools champion such an outcome?

The GED program in Maryland provides limited relief for many of these students. Students who have not passed at least two years of high school (typically 14 credits out of the required 21) have little to no chance of passing the GED test. Hence, an 18 year-old student who has earned few credits is not a viable GED candidate. This student would likely enroll in adult basic education classes, spending a year or more building skills before being equipped to pass the GED test.

Our alternative schools and programs are mostly alternative locations. Students participating in these alternative programs still must pass the same classes and meet the same requirements as students in traditional programs. Educators working in these alternative schools are energized to develop and implement novel approaches for their students, but they are limited by having one set of requirements in place for all students.

Students attending Baltimore City Schools were the focus of the recent article, but students throughout Maryland face similar challenges.

School systems in Maryland, with the full backing of the Maryland legislature and the Maryland State Department of Education, need to make a philosophical and financial commitment to creating meaningful educational options for students. There are many officials who advocate for our students with challenges. But, these students need more than words. When the development of alternative educational options are not budget priorities for school systems, educators are limited in how they can help, and students grow more frustrated. This is why child advocates begin looking for ways outside of our school systems to help youth on their path to self-sufficiency. Our schools should be the best friends these students can have — not barriers to their successful futures.

There are two important ways that advocates for children placed at risk can help. First, contact the state superintendent and members of the state and local boards of education and insist that they consider offering more than one type of diploma. The current educational buzz phrase of making sure our children are "college and career ready" should mean ready for college and/or ready for a career. We all want our students to go to college, but not all are interested or developmentally ready. Some need access to a different type of credential.

Second, insist that your local school systems include expansion of alternative education programming as a priority in their budgets. Ask them to "show you the money." Most school systems are busy developing their fiscal year 2015 budgets. When the first iterations of those budgets are released, the priorities will be highlighted. If expansion of programs for students placed at risk is not in the priorities, request an explanation. If it is not in the budget, it is not going to happen.

Be critical of our child advocates if you will, but at least take the time to consider why they feel that looking at out-of-state possibilities for our students is necessary in the first place.

Craig Cummings is a retired public school administrator who supervised programs in alternative education and student services. His email is ccummingsconsulting@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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