Across the nation, state boards of education are working to determine how high school seniors, the class of 2020, will graduate — or not. The ceremonies with caps and gowns, “Pomp and Circumstance,” and teary-eyed parents are scratched.
There will be no community gatherings in the school gym, auditorium, football stadium, or city center. Along with proms and senior skip days, graduations will not happen. Thank you, seniors and parents, for forgoing these memorable and milestone moments for the common good. But the state boards still face a conundrum. Who will be awarded a high school diploma, and who won’t be?
And where will the line be drawn?
State boards will issue a declaration that all seniors who were on track to graduate when the world changed will receive a diploma. That’s smart, just, and defensible. But what about that student who was a credit shy, or maybe two or three shy, of graduating? The second half of the spring semester is often madcap for those students as teachers, counselors, and administrators make Herculean efforts for these seniors to patch up the damage done by flunking freshman algebra, carrying an incomplete on a transcript, or taking a lighter load because the student is supporting his or her mother and a little sister.
It’s really a glorious time in high schools. A real team effort is being put forth first to help the student and second to help the school. Graduation rates matter, and high schools do their best to award meaningful diplomas. But all too often, life gets in the way for tens of thousands of students.
Certainly, schools know that every diploma granted is important to the school’s performance rating, but every educator knows that graduating high school means increased life choices and increased earnings and that it’s worth the final push — the hectic effort to get a student across the finish line with a diploma.
Often, students in this situation are called old and near. They are 18 or 19 years of age and are ever so near to graduating. But with schools closed, these old and near students won’t be the beneficiaries of their teachers’ and administrators’ devotion and encouragement. As state boards give the green light for students who were on track to graduate when the world changed, it will fall back on school districts, which are struggling to deliver distance learning to their entire student body and lack the usual organizational ability and proximity, to make a little graduation magic for the old and near. And that’s where pop-up schools can help America take a step to normality.
Pop-up schools are large tents, 30 feet by 60 feet. They are pitched on school grounds, athletic fields, or city parks. If other facilities are not available, they have portable toilets. They are airy and allow for easy social distancing. They have desks, chairs, computers, learning resources, and sanitizers in abundance. They are operated by a company that has partnered with public school districts for almost a half-century to get the old and near (and the chronically truant, the expelled, and the suspended) back on track. The company has served hundreds of school districts and almost a half-million students. It is accredited by AdvancED and can help a student earn a district diploma and is authorized to grant its own.
Our company partners with the Chicago Public Schools to recover thousands of West Side and South Side teens and get them back into school. Close to 400 seniors will graduate through our schools in Arizona this spring, and some 10,000 students attend our learning centers every day in another 20 states. We are trusted partners with school districts from rural Georgia to Philadelphia and from San Francisco to New Hampshire.
Pop-up schools help take the stress off school districts reeling from closures. They offer old and near students a place to pivot to a diploma. What is needed is for a school district to create a short-term public-private partnership in which everyone wins. Pop-up schools can fulfill a critical need at a critical time in our nation. They not only can allow students who are just shy of graduation the opportunity to finish high school, but they can also help our world reopen.
Mark K. Claypool is founder and CEO of ChanceLight Education, a Nashville-based company that works under contract with public school districts to serve at-risk students and those with special needs in 21 states. John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D., is on its board of directors. They are co-authors of We’re In This Together: Public Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education(Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and How Autism is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA(Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).