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Schools look to equivalency for overage underachievers; Age 16 path is option to ease dropout rate

Sixteen-year-olds in eighth grade: They don't fit in.

Yet year after year, hundreds of them find themselves stuck in middle school, chronologically in the upper class but chronically underachieving academically.

Those who finally make it into Buffalo's high schools usually fail at earning enough course credits to graduate and end up dropping out.

Their failure is the district's failure, at least statistically, in that these dropouts drag down the district's already low high school graduation rate.

"Some have intractable disabilities, serious cognitive delays and on average need more time," Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Will Keresztes said of 16-year-olds in eighth grade.

"Others don't have diagnosable disabilities, but they are dramatically underskilled and chronically absent," he said in outlining the challenges they and the district face.

So now a new approach is being tried:

Let these 16-year-olds quit school with parental approval and immediately enter into the district's high school equivalency diploma program, entirely sidestepping the traditional high school experience.

District officials say that it beats the alternative, since most are destined to become high school dropouts.

"This is an attempt to gauge if someone is about to walk out the door with nothing and to give some literacy skills and prevent a far more dire situation," interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon said. "What does life look like without a diploma? We're trying to give a real alternative pathway for these students."

Others say that these troubled students are the ones most in need of the full support of the district with traditional high school, rather than a stripped-down GED education.

As well, the skeptics think this "alternative pathway" might be a way for the district to eventually manipulate its low graduation rate, if more and more troubled students take advantage of it.

So far, there has been a low response, only 31 of the 16-year-olds, which would have a minimal impact on improving the district's graduation rate of 47 percent, Dixon said.

But many more are eligible for the new program.

There are 126 students in eighth grade who are either 16 or will be 16 before the school year ends.

Critics also wonder whether this new policy is simply a matter of the district giving up on kids they have been unable to reach.

None of the above, district officials insist.

Skeptics disagree.

"These students often come from homes where the parents are not knowledgeable or active in advocating for their children," a longtime educator in the district's Adult Education Division said. "Many of these 16-year-olds in eighth grade have test evaluation scores of fifth-, fourth- and third-grade levels and sometimes as low as second grade."

Yet in order to qualify to take the General Educational Development exam for a high school equivalency diploma, students must work their way up to at least a ninth-grade reading level.

The educator, who requested anonymity for fear of getting in trouble, says that while these students present a major teaching challenge, offering them GED preparatory classes is not the answer and may just be setting them up for more failure.

"We already have a revolving door with students coming into GED courses. They quit, they come back, they quit, and sometimes they never come back," the educator said. "We end up seeing some of them at our GED program in the Erie County Holding Center."

By doing a better job at working with these hard-to-teach youngsters in a regular school setting, the educator added, the students have access to more resources, unlike adult education.

Absent from the district's Adult Education Division are special-education teachers for students diagnosed with learning or emotional disabilities, classroom aides, psychologists and art, music and gym classes.

Others in the district also worry about this new approach, according to Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

"We came out against this because it really is blaming the victim. Sending a 16-year-old to a GED class is just another path for them drop out," he said.

Better alternatives, Radford suggested, would include early identification of children who struggle academically and placing them into vocational programs to teach them mechanical skills.

"Some kids do well with their hands. At least they would have a skill set so that they can contribute to society," he said.

Another alternative, Radford added, would require restructuring the district's educational system so that high-achieving students would not gravitate to the district's better schools, such as City Honors.

The present system, he said, has resulted in high concentrations of poorly achieving students in some district schools, which amounts to a form of segregation that comes down on racial lines.

"In the suburbs, the schools are equal. You can't put all the kids academically suffering together in the city. You need smart ones in the mix to help raise things up," Radford said.

But district officials say that this new option, which began several months ago, is a credible effort to make sure academically languishing students attain some literacy skills to help them along in life.

In addition to 16-year-olds in eighth grade, the option is also available to 16-year-olds already in high school, but with no accrued credits for graduation.

If these students start skipping GED classes, they are required to return to traditional school, according to the district. The rules say that they just can't quit school.

Seventeen is the allowable dropout age, yet school administrators say that many underage students just stop going to school before they turn 17.

So what about those students who quit?

Several in the GED program told The Buffalo News they wish they had never left school in the first place but are glad they have GED teachers who are concerned about them.

Angel Ortiz, a former freshman at Lafayette High School, quit last September.

Regular school, the 16-year-old explained, seemed pointless. He was not making progress.

"I always skipped school a lot and was getting suspended. The principal was calling my mom," Angel said of what led up to quitting.

Now he says he is making progress working toward his equivalency diploma. "I just started, but I'm doing good."

Angel is enrolled at the Career Collegiate Institute in North Buffalo, part of the district's Adult Education Division.

David Rodriguez, 17, started there when he was 16. He says he is struggling. He had quit Lafayette High School at 14.

"If I could do it over, I'd go back in a heartbeat. My advice is to stay in school. Getting a GED is not easy. It's hard work," David said.

No question about that.

Consider these numbers. In the 2010-11 school year, 128 students ages 16 to 21 quit school. Forty-five enrolled in the high school equivalency program, and three now have diplomas.

Of the 42 remaining students, 26 are scheduled to take the GED exam by June 30. The remaining 16 are still in class but have not reached a ninth-grade reading level.

And standards for an equivalency diploma will soon become more demanding.

The state Education Department has hired an outside contractor to overhaul the GED curriculum, with implementation set for 2014.

Even so, district officials say an alternative for their failing 16-year-olds remains valid.

"Virtually none graduate high school in four years, a few do in five years, but most drop out," Keresztes said.

Currently there are 126 16-year-olds in eighth grade, and even more are expected next year, with 137 15-year-olds in seventh grade.

The elimination of social promotions, Dixon said, created this group of older students in elementary schools. In Buffalo, the practice of promoting failing students to the next grade level was abolished in 2006.

So what can be done ahead of time to avoid ending up with 16-year-olds in eighth grade?

"We're looking at intervention strategies," Dixon said.

Such strategies would include identifying their specific needs and addressing them, she said, in addition to providing intensive remedial math and reading assistance.

News Staff Reporter Mary B. Pasciak contributed to this report.