In the midst of the pandemic-disrupted school year, education advocates are pressing the state to assist one group of especially vulnerable students: teenagers and young adults who are aging out of high school.
Under state law, students have the right to stay in school and earn their high school diploma until they turn 21 years old. While more than 95 percent of New York City’s school students complete their high school education in four years, a small group of students needs five or six years for a litany of reasons, the Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma wrote in a letter to the New York State Board of Regents and the state Education Department this week.
The coalition is now urging the state to continue to fund the programs and schools that serve non-traditional students, including 51 high schools in the five boroughs alone.
Last year, about 2,722 students in New York state graduated in their sixth year of high school.
“Students become overage and under-credited for a variety of reasons. Many have experienced homelessness or spent time in foster care. Others have experienced court involvement; arrived in the United States as teenagers new to learning English; or dropped out of school to work to support themselves or their families. Overage students are disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities, multilingual learners and students from low-income households. For example, students with disabilities are more than three times as likely as students without disabilities to need a sixth year and black and Latinx students are seven times as likely as white students to need a sixth year to graduate,” the letter read.
The coalition falls under the non-profit Advocates for Children group and includes more than a hundred education and advocacy organizations and five dozen parents and educators in the state.
Because of the many hurdles facing overage students, remote learning setup has been particularly difficult for this group of students, the letter said.
“Although educators, parents and public officials have worked diligently to create remote learning opportunities, thousands of students across New York State—through no fault of their own—have been unable to engage in remote learning or to adapt to this altered learning method, and will not be able to earn full course credits this term. We are deeply concerned that the overage students unable to earn course credit this term will be those who are already marginalized and whose families are already being hit hardest by COVID-19.”
“Without an opportunity to finish earning credits when schools reopen in 2020-21, many overage students will simply age out without a diploma, making it much more difficult for them to access post-secondary opportunities and jobs especially at a time of surging unemployment rates,” the letter said. “When the current public health crisis subsides, these overage high school seniors need the opportunity to return to school to finish earning their diplomas and prepare for the transition to post-secondary opportunities.”
The city Department of Education agreed that support for older students was necessary: “We have always worked to provide our older students with multiple pathways to graduate and prepare for college and careers, and this year will be no different,” said DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson in an emailed statement. “Given the recent challenges facing our families, we agree the state should appropriately fund and provide older students, particularly students with disabilities, additional opportunities to continue learning.”
"The age of educational entitlement (21) is set in statute and would have to be changed legislatively," the state Department of Education said in a statement.
“In light of the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, the state needs to extend the age of eligibility and ensure schools have sufficient resources to give this relatively small but exceptional group of young people the last chance they need to earn a high school diploma,” said Ashley Grant, Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma coordinator, in a press release Monday.
Enfinity Harris, a 20-year-old from Bedford-Stuyvesant, is one New Yorker who benefited from the state’s programs for older high school students.
Harris is wrapping up her senior year at Brooklyn Frontiers High School, an alternative school in downtown Brooklyn. Harris said she needed about five years to finish high school in part because she was raising a family.
“When I first started high school I didn’t really understand high school. So I was hanging out with the wrong cliques. I didn’t take earning credits serious,” she said. “I was a young mother and I had to grow faster than what I was supposed to.”
Harris said she thought about dropping out several times but the staff at Brooklyn Frontiers supported her and worked with her through the years, until “I just blocked everything out and then just, like, started focusing really hard and going hard,” she said.
Harris is wrapping up her last high school classes this week, has already received her cosmetology license and is looking forward to working as a hairstylist in the future.