By Bob Rath, President and CEO of Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc.

As Connecticut revels in the passage of Public Act 12-116, and the progress made toward ensuring that all Connecticut students have access to an excellent education, we must not forget a particular group of students who still require our help.  Many are familiar with the term “at-risk”, often used to describe students who are likely to drop out of school, or who come from low-income and urban communities. However, merely describing these students as “at-risk” misses an important academic characteristic shared by many of these young people. The phrase “over-age, under-credited” captures the common academic background of a population of youth found at the heart of our nation’s dropout crisis. But who are over-age, under-credited students? Why does their success (or lack thereof) have such a large impact on our state and nation?  And, most importantly, how can we help them get back on track to achieve success?

Simply put, over-age, under-credited (OU) youth do not have the appropriate number of credits for their age and intended grade. These students have disengaged from school and feed directly into each year’s class of high school dropouts. The number of students who can be classified as OU is astounding – in Connecticut alone, there are an estimated 30-40,000. Many of these students face difficult life circumstances, have been unsuccessful in finding work, hold a care-giver role in their family, or are involved in the criminal justice system. Others suffer from mental or physical health conditions that are major obstacles to their success. The prevalence of this high-risk student population makes it clear that OU youth require help and close attention.  Yet from the time when they first begin to display signs of difficulty to the time they drop out, many of these students are consistently overlooked and underserved. When this happens, they often drop out of school, join Adult Education programs to earn a GED, or disengage from education entirely. OU youth that become high school dropouts experience many negative consequences over their lifetimes. The unemployment rate of high school dropouts is almost three times the rate of students with some postsecondary education. Of the high school dropouts who do find employment, they are paid nearly $8,000 less each year than a high school graduate and over $27,000 less each year than a college graduate.  Other negative consequences go even further than lost tax revenue in affecting not only these individuals, but their communities, as well.  Increased rates of incarceration, poorer health, and a greater dependence on public assistance programs all cost society, as a whole. But these outcomes can change. If just half (4,500) of the approximately 9,000 Connecticut students who failed to graduate with their cohort in 2011 instead graduated, they would generate an estimated $57 million in additional revenue each year. These earnings would lead to increased spending of over $40 million, resulting in approximately 270 new jobs. And these staggering figures are only projections for part of a single potential class of high school dropouts; the impacts on the Connecticut economy would be enormous, were every student to graduate from high school each year.

Considering the negative economic and social consequences of failing to address the needs of OU youth, we must ask why we continue to let so many young people slip through the cracks. How do so many students become over-age and under-credited, and how can we help these students get back on track? It is time we looked beyond the vague term “at-risk” to focus on improving outcomes for the specific population of OU youth. To assist these students, we must employ innovative education strategies such as contract and charter schools, competency-based progression, and blended, and extended learning alternatives. Federal and state policies must also change to support innovative learning strategies.

Changes should include provision of adequate funding, focused post-secondary readiness requirements, and the development of early warning systems for struggling students. OU youth must be at the center of national, state, and local reform efforts. With the proper supports, these students can, and will succeed, with extraordinary impact. The over-age, under-credited youth population has been a target for Our Piece of the Pie® (OPP®) since we opened Opportunity High School, an alternative high school for OU youth, with Hartford Public Schools in 2009.  While the approximately 150 students at Opportunity High School are seeing remarkable achievements, it is time for the state to put a focus on the OU population, so that the approximately 30-40,000 OU youth across the state can have the same opportunity to succeed.  That is why we have authored a report highlighting the issues that these youth face, and detailing some of the solutions that could help them get back on track.  “Helping Over-Age, Under-Credited Youth Succeed: Making the Case for Innovative Education Strategies” is a call to action for the state and nation.  Every student deserves the opportunity to succeed. It is our community’s responsibility to ensure that they are prepared to take it.  

Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc. (OPP®) is a youth development agency based in Hartford, CT. Focused on the mission of “helping urban youth become successful adults,” OPP has successfully structured its programs and services to lead at-risk or disadvantaged youth, ages 14-24, toward success in both community- and school-based settings. The agency’s signature program, Pathways to Success, integrates best practices from three fields – youth development, education, and workforce development – and helps young people to get through high school, and on to post-secondary education and meaningful employment.  OPP has successfully served youth through our Pathways to Success program since 2005.  We opened our partnership high school with Hartford Public Schools, Opportunity High School, in August 2009, serving only over-age, under-credited youth.  More recently, OPP has engaged in policy efforts on behalf of our target population, working with state and federal policymakers to ensure that over-age, under-credited youth have the supports that they need to achieve success.

The ideas expressed in this blog post reflect the views of the writer and are not necessarily those of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER). For information about CCER’s stance on these issues, see our Report outlining 65+ recommendations for how Connecticut can close its achievement gap while raising academic outcomes for all students.