When then-state senator Miguel del Valle passed a law in 2004 that raised the compulsory school attendance age to 17, he hoped it would force schools to fight to keep 16-year-olds from dropping out.

But by all accounts, some 16-year-olds continue to leave Chicago high schools. And the change in the law had an unanticipated problem: When it came to alternative schools, the options for these young people were limited.

Alternative schools are supposed to serve only students who have formally dropped out. Since 16-year-olds could no longer do that, schools were confused about how to handle them—let them enroll, or send them back to their old school?

It’s difficult to tell how many 16-year-olds have left school, but the numbers indicate an increase.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research found an average of 2,600 16-year-olds were categorized as “inactive” each year from 2004 to 2006. The category identified them as dropouts.

In 2006, the district adopted a new student tracking system called IMPACT, which added a “dropout” category but also other categories that Consortium researchers believe includes dropouts. The number of 16-year-olds classified as “dropouts” plummeted to about 100.

Between 2006 and 2008, nearly 5,000 16-year-olds had been placed in a no-man’s-land category called “Other-gone.”

In addition, the number of 16-year-olds placed in the “Left” category increased by 10 percent, from 6,000 to 6,597. Although the category is supposed to be for students who have transferred, Consortium researcher Todd Rosenkranz believes that the sudden spike in the numbers could mean an increase in dropouts, not formal transfers.
Meanwhile, principals at alternative schools say 16-year-olds continue to call or come by to enroll.

Nancy Jackson, a director at Prologue, believes that more 16-year-olds are now out on the street. She says some high schools keep these students on the rolls, despite long absences, to keep from getting in trouble for dropping them.

Jackson says she directs 16-year-olds to Winnie Mandela in South Shore, the only school to accept them. Some trek there, but others stay out of school until their 17th birthday.

At CCA Academy in North Lawndale, Principal Myra Sampson says her school has no choice but to tell 16-year-olds they have to return to their old school.  Truman Middle College Principal Thomas O’Hale says he lets them enroll if they get a withdrawal form.

With fewer 16-year-olds, alternative schools have had to change their structure and focus, says Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connections Charter, which operates 22 alternative schools. The schools now serve more 18- and 19-year-olds with few credits.

To serve this population, some schools are considering longer days or additional online courses. Schools are also concentrating on core subjects. “Instead of the plethora of high school options, such as philosophy, or the wide breadth of programs, there’s more a focus on the essential skills,” Venson says.

Although the goal of his law was to keep kids from dropping out at 16, Del Valle says having them end up in alternative schools isn’t bad. For pregnant and parenting students, and for those who need extra support, these schools might be the best option. In all, 354 16-year-olds transferred to Youth Connections alternative schools in 2008, according to Consortium data. (Fourteen dropped out before turning 17.)

But Del Valle also notes that it is the responsibility of the original school to make sure the student does, in fact, transfer. “They should not just say goodbye and hope they show up,” he says.

Counselors and administrators at traditional high schools have vastly different strategies for handling 16-year-olds who show signs of quitting school.

Sarah Briggs, student development teacher at Global Visions High on the Bowen campus in South Chicago, says her school takes more time before dropping students with bad attendance. An attendance team talks to each truant individually, and the personal outreach has helped some students.

But the overall response was disappointing because students had difficult situations outside school that they couldn’t overcome—some new teen mothers didn’t have child care and other students lacked money for bus fare.

Briggs says, some 16-year-olds were simply lost. “Students just stop coming, and you don’t hear [what happened],” she says.
Kennedy High School Assistant Principal Chris Pawelczyk says that his school doesn’t have any specific strategies for 16-year-olds. For each student, he says, the school does “everything we can.”

Pawelczyk points out that parents can be held accountable when a 16-year-old stops coming to school, and that in some cases, the school will put them through a court hearing.

Some observers worry that traditional high schools merely dump troublesome students at alternative programs. But most high school counselors and administers say they see little wrong with allowing some students, even those who are 16, to transfer: Often, they say, alternative schools are good options for struggling students.

Assistant Principal Roberto Paredes of Bowen Environmental Studies High on the Bowen campus says that when students are disruptive, a transfer is in order. “They impede the education process for the rest of the students,” he says.

“It’s doing a kid an injustice if you keep them here if they cannot excel,” says Cornelius Camp, counselor at Douglass High School in Austin. “You have to look at the situation and evaluate it from there.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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