There are thousands of students across this state who struggle with school. For many of them, the likelihood that they will ever graduate high school and get the education they need to succeed in life is, frankly, miniscule. I’m speaking of at-risk youth, especially those who are over-age and under-credited. These students have become disconnected and disengaged in school, falling behind and often dropping out altogether. Rather than addressing their additional needs, the traditional system more often pushes them out the door to poorly funded alternative programs or adult education centers that are ill-equipped to handle their challenges. They are forgotten about and left behind, and most lose faith in their own ability to succeed. But, the reality is: when offered the right supports, ALL of these students can get through high school and on to post-secondary education and meaningful careers. As my agency, Our Piece of the Pie, serves just these youth, I am a witness to this reality every day.

Although much of the public focus on Senate Bill 24, the education reform bill being debated right now, is on teacher and principal policies, the bill covers much more than that. In fact, the bill does a tremendous job of increasing high-quality school options for our highest need youth. These students are often written off by the system, but I can assure you that it is to our detriment if we do not do everything in our power to guarantee them just as high quality an educational experience as we expect for everyone else.

Not only is our education system failing these individual youth, but it is failing the state and its economy as a whole. A recent commissioned study by Dr. Andrew Sum of Northeastern University estimates that, on average, every high school dropout in Connecticut costs the state more than $500,000 over his/her working lifetime. With these enormous costs, we cannot afford to underserve our students.

For too long, the traditional school model has assumed that academic performance should remain separate from other issues facing our high need and at-risk youth. However, as research across the country has shown, schools must offer whole person supports, particularly for our highest need students. These youth need support and wraparound services above and beyond what we provide for the majority of students. S.B. 24 provides an opening for this new kind of school model by requiring that conditional funding grantees – those lowest performing districts that will be eligible for additional funding – coordinate with providers to ensure that students receive adequate support and wraparound services.

Even better, the bill makes an important recognition of youth service providers’ abilities to enhance student achievement, through its proposal to allow non-profits (among other organizations) to run schools within the Commissioner’s Network. This will allow students in these lowest performing schools to reap the benefits of programs that are already helping high need students succeed by focusing on a combination of youth development, education, and workforce development. These components of S.B. 24 open the door for proven programs to help school districts make a difference for their students.

While these proposals aimed at high need schools and districts are an excellent start, the state must maintain an even sharper focus on the highest need subsets of students in these areas – students like over-age, under-credited youth. Historically, there have been few avenues through which to serve these students in Connecticut, which has not been home to an overwhelming number of high quality alternative education programs. Charters and other public choice schools can often be a great innovation space for the truly alternative academic models that work for struggling and high need students, yet Connecticut has routinely put up roadblocks to scaling up these successful learning environments statewide, particularly restricting them through limited funding. 

S.B. 24 takes enormous strides toward fixing many of these issues, ensuring that high quality service providers can open and operate these types of schools to improve student achievement across the state. Proposals creating capacity to open new community, CommPACT, and local/state charter schools will give service providers room to open new programs. These proposals create a foundation on which to begin to equitably educate all of Connecticut’s students.

Connecticut cannot afford to continue stalling on important education reforms, particularly those aimed at our state’s highest need students.  With every high school dropout costing the state more than half a million dollars over his/her working lifetime, we must do everything possible to ensure student achievement in our schools. This means giving all of our students appropriate learning environments – not just removing those who are not succeeding and sending them to Adult Education or low quality alternative programs. Every Connecticut youth should have an education that adequately prepares them for the life ahead.  We at Our Piece of the Pie strongly encourage legislators to embrace this bill and work to bring about the changes that our highest needs students, and our society, deserve.

Bob Rath is President/CEO of Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc., a youth development agency in Hartford, CT.