What if high school had options?

I’m having lunch with Ken Danford and he’s telling me how he coaches teens (and their parents) to drop out of school. He explains that students come to him when they are bored or stuck in school, home-schooled, or struggling with personal issues, and looking for an alternative. Ken explains to them “there’s nothing you can do with a high school diploma that you can’t do without one.” 

I learn that North Star is a high school alternative, a community-center-like place where teens can take any number of classes and study whatever they desire. Ken reports that most of his students go on to colleges or jobs, and that all come back to tell him how life-affirming North Star was for them; that the freedom they experienced allowed them to grow and develop as excited learners. 

This conversation is making my head spin with delight. I’m sitting there remembering how bored I was in high school; so bored that I created internships for myself and got my guidance counselors to sign off on them so I could study what I chose and leave that suffocating, institutional building. What if there had been a North Star for me? 

Dessert arrives as we delve into a flurry of ‘what if…’ brainstorming. Ken shares an idealistic vision of his: what if you had two choices in high school? You could take the proscribed classes and graduate with a high school diploma, OR you could take any classes you want (out of what is offered) and take the GED. (In many cases you’d still take all the same courses, just in a different order. Most high schools don’t offer enough courses that you could attend for four years and never take a math class, for example.) 

We discuss how there would be no change in administration, infrastructure, or funding. High schools could continue doing what they always do, while including a second offering for more self-directed learners. 

My mind is officially blown. If I had had this experience I would have immersed myself in subjects; I would have taken only art and language courses one semester, only science and math another, literature, writing, and English in the spring. We all learn differently; I would have benefited from choosing my own high school schedule. No one ever told me that the GED exam is equivalent to a high school diploma. I didn’t have a Ken Danford in my life. 

We all know how public school developed in the US when the government decided that child labor was unlawful, yet adults worked full-time, and so what to do with the kids? We also all know how quickly education became standardized as the schools grew in size and needed efficient ways to keep records. The goal of public school was to keep kids safe and accounted for (while parents worked) and to train kids for factory work. 

In our current day and age, more and more jobs have become automated, and our schools are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist; the mundane, follow-the-rules cookie cutter jobs are a thing of the past. Now we need citizens who think critically and creatively and want to solve problems that benefit society. That is not a realistic outcome if we force children for 13 years (from ages 5-18) to sit and follow directions all day. 

What if teens had more options? What if you could do the typical, proscribed course schedule and graduate with a high school diploma, OR you could take whatever courses you wanted and take the GED in place of the diploma? And what if there were more non-high-school alternatives, like North Star, for teens who learn differently?