Breaking Out of the Mold
If there’s one thing that all parents share, it’s that we want our children to lead happy, successful lives. We don’t want to make choices on their behalf that could harm their chances of reaching important goals. One of the decisions that feels crucial to their future success is determining their high school path. Our society has placed an overwhelming emphasis on doing well in high school as a stepping stone towards college, and our kids definitely feel the weight of this pressure.
When our son was nearing the end of 8th grade, my husband and I began to have conversations about the available high school options in our area. We were aware of two; one public, one private. We entertained both possibilities but felt no excitement in either option. The public school option made us hesitant because of the unhealthy social pressures and continued stress in managing academics that had increasingly felt overwhelming and irrelevant to our teen throughout middle school. We did not want our son to respond to these stressors in the ways that many teens do; by falling into a mode of disengaging from school and descending down a slope of declining self-esteem. Of the two available school choices, the private school appeared the better option, as they gave more personalized attention and offered an inspired curriculum. But we realized that beneath the glossy appearance of expensive education, the social and academic overwhelm would remain the same. Why was it that every time we asked a high school student about school, they grumbled through words like ‘exhausted’, ‘busy work’, ‘stressed’, and ‘pointless’? We wanted to feel hopeful as we sent our teen son to high school but our exploration process was revealing feelings of fear more than anything else. How could we help our teen experience school in a different way?
As we talked to our friends about this, we realized that most parents are still very invested in the ‘classic’ high school experience because it’s what we all did when we were teens. But high school and the teen experience of today is nothing like it was when we were young. All the ways that many of us recall struggling through high school have been amplified over the last couple of decades with the increasing pace, workload, social media, and flow of global information. Anxiety, while it existed during our teen years, has now reached levels of epidemic proportions. We kept reading about the teen mental health crisis in America, and we were concerned for our son.
Identifying our Fears
After hours of conversations over many months, we realized our main fear was that our son’s high school experience would be one of disillusionment with the world. We didn’t want his sensitive, creative heart to build walls of protection, investing in anger and resentment instead of having the time and space to naturally flourish. He shouldn’t have to just endure high school, like so many of his friends. We wanted him to have the space and time to get to know himself, to feel empowered to explore his passions, and to learn to think for himself, not just follow directions. While some teens continue to navigate the standard high school experience relatively well, there are deplorably high numbers of teens that are suffering through high school. A recent Gallup poll of 5 million students in the U.S. found that only about ⅓ of high school students are actively engaged in their education. Worse still, about one in three teens have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and suicide for high school students is up 50% in the past two decades. Our fears were not unfounded as we actively searched for high school alternatives.
How could we reconcile our primary goal of raising a happy, successful young adult with the experiences we continued to hear directly from teens, as well as from the growing research, that demonstrated epidemic levels of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm in high school?
Carving a New Path
Another option began to surface. We started to hear about teens enrolled in Early College programs through local public charter schools, and the results look promising. The teens were reporting high levels of satisfaction with this alternative high school path. These programs, also referred to as dual-enrollment, allow teens to take classes on their local Community College campus (or online) and have those classes count for both college and high school credits simultaneously. The college tuition was paid by the public charter school, so these teens were earning a year or two of college credits for free at the same time that they completed their high school diploma. They appreciated the extra independence in choosing their classes and the time of day that they took them. They often found that managing their college classes was no more difficult than typical high school, and they particularly loved that most students in their classes were motivated to be there, as opposed to traditional high school where many kids would rather be anywhere else. We began to get excited about this possible high school alternative, but when we mentioned to our friends that we were considering this path for our son, we were met with a litany of concerns and pointed comments.
- What about his social life?
- Won’t it hurt his chances of getting into a good college?
- Teens just need to learn to deal with it and get through high school.
- Free college can’t be possible. There must be a catch!
- Don’t you have to be super-smart to succeed in college classes?
- He won’t be able to play sports at high school, will he?
In all honesty, we were relentlessly asking ourselves similar questions. We grew up in the same educational paradigm as every other parent of a teen in this world today – you send your kid to high school, a private one if you can afford it, and check all the boxes to improve their chances of getting into a good college. If you were opting to pursue an alternative high school path, it meant that your child just couldn’t cut it. There is a strong stigma associated with schooling differently amongst people of our generation.
But this new generation is different. As we looked into it further, we realized that if our son was in an Early College program, he could still play sports and do other extracurricular activities at our local high school, the same as any other kid. He had plenty of friends in our neighborhood and wasn’t worried about missing out on the social life of high school. We also talked to admissions departments at colleges and universities and they reported that they are very interested in receiving applications from Early College teens. Teens that were already attending Early College told us that it was no more challenging than traditional high school because there is so much less busywork. Maybe all of the push-back we were getting from other parents, and our own fears, were actually unfounded.
Working through the fear of making a decision that was perceived by other parents as potentially harmful to our child’s future was really hard. But as we began to uncover the facts and consider this new option from every angle, our inspiration grew. Our hope for a rewarding educational experience for our son returned and our fears began to lessen. The early college option appeared to provide a vastly improved path to becoming a happy, successful young adult, primarily because it would give our son the opportunity to take the lead in determining his own educational journey. He would be attending classes full of students of different ages and life experiences at our local Community College. He liked this idea and reported that he thought he would learn more and be less distracted by a classroom of his peers. Early College seemed to have the potential to empower our son, encourage his self-confidence, and provide him with the space and time to give deeper consideration to his life, his relationships, and his personal interests. And he could earn an Associate Degree while still in high school, for free!
In the end, we felt that it was a greater risk to send him to a traditional high school than to try this alternative high school path. Early College could provide:
- Improved social and academic environments
- Greater independence and motivation
- Huge financial savings for college
- Increased confidence and self-esteem
Managing the Risks of Being a Teen
In the face of the looming mental health crisis in teens and the extremely competitive environment of applying to good colleges, we decided to try something new. After talking to many college and university admissions departments, it was clear that they did not frown upon an applicant who had attended Early College; sometimes they even favored them. In fact, some teens told us that they believed their Early College experience was actually what had enabled them to get into very competitive colleges. With so many college applicants having 4.0 GPAs, excellent SAT scores and all the boxes checked for extracurricular activities and volunteering, having completed a year or two of Community College while simultaneously graduating high school can set a student apart from the pack. It turns out to be a very effective way to make a teen’s application stand out among their peers.
When we, as parents, really consider what it is that cultivates happiness and success in our own lives, we generally acknowledge that such outcomes are centered around the quality of our relationships. When teens are completely overwhelmed and stressed in high school, they often don’t have the time or energy to focus on what is important nor to cultivate healthy relationships. Of course, getting good grades is important, but studies show that we only remember about 10-20% of what we learn in school. What we do remember from our high school years is how we were treated by our peers, and how this affected our self-esteem and confidence. If we are stressed and anxious during high school, those experiences will be stored in our bodies and minds and can cause enduring patterns of anxiety and depression. The cognitive patterns that we create during these formative years will influence us over our entire lives. As parents, we decided that it was more important for our son to be in a supportive social and academic environment, even if it meant facing the unknown of charting a new course in an Early College high school.
Reaping the Rewards of Early College
So, right out of 8th grade, our son decided to take all of his classes at our local Community College rather than the traditional high school. I’m happy to report that he is thriving. Two years into his pursuit of an Associate Degree in high school, he is happy, confident, and so grateful to have charted the Early College course. He has maintained most of his valued friendships from middle school and still spends a lot of time with his friends from our neighborhood. He has expanded his social circles by keeping a part-time job, joining the local Youth Symphony, and playing clarinet and piano out in the community. These are all things that many traditional high school students can’t find time to fit into their overscheduled lives. But in Early College, our son has found the freedom and energy outside of school to lead a more balanced and interesting life.
As a middle school student, our son was overwhelmed, disorganized, and rarely knew what was going on academically because he was more focused on fitting in socially than listening to his classroom teacher. No wonder he wasn’t able to pay attention very well in classes! Ironically, in the past two years that he has been enrolled in Early College, he has completed more than half of an Associate Degree in high school, has earned a 3.7 GPA, and is a member of the honor society. He says that this is mainly due to a better classroom environment with teachers that are able to teach the subjects they are passionate about rather than manage a classroom full of teens that don’t want to be there. He also has more choices of classes to take and the freedom to take subjects that he is interested in, not just what he is told to take. He prefers to start his class day at 10:00 a.m. rather than 8:00 a.m., as this helps him be more rested and attentive in class. His peers in the Community College classroom are focused and motivated and he has followed suit and become an excellent student as well. In the Community College classroom, he has also had the opportunity to take classes from Ph.D professors or with specific experience in their fields who deliver the curriculum with a level of expertise that isn’t usually found in traditional high schools. These professors are teaching in a mixed-age classroom environment of respect, not the more chaotic and challenging environment of a traditional high school classroom.
All children are unique, and I’m certainly not saying that the Early College path is for every student, but it is exactly their uniqueness that can be better served by taking charge of their own educational path through their high school years. It’s reassuring to note that out of the hundreds of Early College teens that have gone through a local charter school in our valley, it is extremely rare for a teen to want to return to their traditional high school path. However, if they do want to return, it is an easy process to transition back to traditional high school and all the credits they earned while in Early College can be utilized to fulfill their high school requirements. So it really isn’t as much of a risk as we had thought.
Thinking about where our son is now compared to where he’d be if he had stuck with the traditional high school path gives me a sense of gratitude and joy. He is a happy, well-adjusted teen. Others see this and comment on how unique this is in today’s world. By the time his peers will be completing their traditional high school paths, he will have attended Community College for over two years and will also have completed a year in the Music Performance Bachelor’s degree program at our local university…almost all for free! And during that time, he had the flexibility to take entire terms off to go on family adventures. It might sound too good to be true, but that is why I’m excited to share our experience in this blog. If your teen isn’t satisfied with their high school path or hasn’t even begun it yet and you are looking for high school alternatives, please check out the Early College path. You’ll be happy you did!