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All My Friends are High School Dropouts

Growing up, I had a good group of about 8 friends. We were all high academic achievers, loved school, and already had ideas about what we wanted to do when we became grown-ups. Of the 8 of us, only me and Kate, one of my oldest friends, actually graduated high school, and Kate only barely graduated. What happened? Why did so many of my friends drop out, with so much potential?

In the Skeptifem interview a few weeks ago, she gave this advice:

Dropping out of high school doesn’t mean you can’t go to college or have a good job; it just means you can do those things a lot faster. I did drop out of high school and went to college and ended up working in healthcare, and none of the bad things people threatened me with happened.

Every single one of my dropout friends did the same thing. High school was an experience they didn’t need.

Take my friend C.J., for instance. He was in public school until 5th grade, but then homeschooled until his freshman year of high school. During that time, he began working at the local museum, interacting with the public and teaching kids about science. He then tried to return to a non-traditional high school. He enjoyed his classes and trips there, but it wasn’t really teaching him anything. He wanted an academic challenge. He was also worn out by the social environment. While the other students were his age peers, he had very little in common with them. While other 15 year old boys wanted to talk girls and cars and whatever else the average 15 year old boy talks about, he wanted to talk about ancient civilizations and the vastness of the universe. Clearly, high school wasn’t going to help him grow much intellectually or socially. So, he dropped out, officially return to his “homeschooler” status. He started taking classes at the local community college, and graduated at 18 with his Associate’s degree. He’s now transferred those credits and is finishing up his Bachelor’s.

Another friend, Lynn, stayed in high school until her junior year. Technically, she graduated early, but if you ask her, she’ll freely admit she dropped out. She’d entered high school young, coming from a homeschooling background. Despite being the youngest one in every single class, though, she quickly became one of the top students, taking AP classes all three years and acing them. She got sick of high school immaturity; she felt things were more important that what celebrities were doing or who was cute in the latest blockbuster movie or what clothes were in fashion. So, she accelerated her schoolwork and got out after her junior year. She’s now attending one of the top engineering schools in the country.

Two of my other friends technically aren’t drop-outs… they just did high school and college at the same time, walking away with a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree after 4 years. But their “high school” was a university, and their classes were all attended by undergraduate students, so they practically skipped high school all together.

Even I, the poster high school graduate, didn’t really complete high school. I only attended the high school I graduated from for my junior and senior years… before that, I had been a museum and virtual schooler. Basically, rather than attending a brick-and-mortar high school, I worked and took classes at the local museum, and took other classes online, getting AP and honors credit through a virtual public school.

For my friends and I, high school just wasn’t a rite of passage we needed to complete. All of us were socially mature at a young age, keeping up with graduate students a decade older. Coming from non-traditional or highly academic schooling backgrounds, high school didn’t really provide any new challenges or opportunities. We found ways to play the school system such that we could get to the colleges where we felt we’d be able to truly achieve. None of our potential was wasted by graduating early or dropping out; in fact, a good case could be made that skipping the usual 4 years of high school probably saved our enthusiasm for learning and reality.

But it’s not the track for everyone. Another friend of mine skipped high school entirely, enrolling in college at age 13. He wanted to study computer science, and so did. But now, at 19, he’s got a master’s degree and is an assistant professor. Now, that sounds awesome… until you realize that the undergraduates are the same age as him. In particular, the undergraduate girls are the same age as him. Derek has never been in a social group of people his own age. He’s never had a real girlfriend because there weren’t any girls around who could both keep up with him intellectually and not see him as a cute kid or a little brother. Now, when he’s finally found a person he likes and could actually date, he can’t because of teacher-student regulations. And there are other problems, too… he’s gone from a confident, intelligent, awesome kid to more of a stereotypically awkward genius nerd.

…And he’s still one of the ones who’s better off. I know of other students who dropped out of high school to go to college, then failed out either because they couldn’t handle the academics or they couldn’t handle the social scene. Now, they don’t know what to do with their lives, and I am not sure they’ll ever get back on track. There are even worse outcomes, too: frequently, kids who are accelerated or grade skipped too much are the ones who become suicidal, due to the high expectations and high stress. At least one of the three boys I mentioned in a previous Woo Zoo post committed suicide for that reason.

Still, I tend to agree with Skeptifem’s advice. If you, like my successful high school dropout friends, feel high school goes too slow, that the people who are supposed to be your peers are incredibly immature, if you’re sick of playing the public (or private) school game… find a way to make the system work for you, and get out. Go to college, or whatever environment lets you grow to reach your full potential. Traditional school is only the most common way- it’s far from the only one. Take the path that feels right for you.

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.

12 Comments

  1. July 25, 2011 at 11:54 am —

    I went to http://www.simons-rock.edu/ – I dropped out at 15 and went straight into a 4-year degree program. It was the most important, amazing, experience of my life.

    High school is a deeply broken model, and alternatives should be more readily available and acceptable.

    • July 25, 2011 at 4:41 pm —

      I think I’ve heard of Bard College before… I believe some people I knew from a academic program did the same thing, dropped out and attended there. It’s a really neat idea, though, that they specifically seek out students who are ready for college after a couple years of high school. I wish more places had programs like that… to my knowledge, there aren’t very many.

      I agree, that there should be more alternatives. Though, along with that, I think we should work on improving the high school (and all primary school) system. Because, while it works for some, it is way too rigid for most.

      A general appeal: if others have resources for high academic students who need either extensions to or a way out of the public school system, would you mind sharing them? I’d love to have some sort of list/resource available to help students get the intellectual resources they need.

  2. July 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm —

    This, this, this. I went to a regular high school for my freshman year, but it didn’t work out for me at all. I was the only ninth-grader in my AP Computer Science class (also, the only girl!), and merely enrolling in that class–or, any other upper-level courses, for that matter–was somewhat difficult due to administrative policies. Plus, the advanced classes I was taking weren’t intellectually challenging so much as they were full of busywork. I ended up at an early college program, where my schedule was half dual-credit and half high-school for tenth grade, then full-time dual-credit for eleventh. I graduated at the end of eleventh grade, transferred to a university, and just finished my bachelor’s degree at 19. I’ll be starting a graduate degree in literature this fall!

    I will say, though, that somewhat like your friend who skipped high school entirely, I have slight reservations about recommending extensive academic acceleration for certain students. As an undergrad, I was pursuing certification as a high school teacher, but some people were averse–or, at the very least, hesitant–about having a 17- or 18-year-old in the classroom, supervising students approximately the same age. One of my professors from my dual-credit days vehemently recommended that I try my hand at teaching college, instead; presumably, because college students are mostly adults, there would be less resistance to employing a young instructor. I’m disappointed that I’ll have to wait at least another two years to start teaching full-time, but it was always my intention to go to graduate school. At least, this way, I’ll be able to dedicate all of my attention to my studies, and when I finish, I’ll have more career options–always a good thing for those in the humanities!

    Ultimately, I agree with your (and Skeptifem’s) advice. There are tons of options for high school-age students nowadays, so if you can find the resources that work best for you, take advantage of them!

    And, I’d love to pick Derek’s brain sometime! If you’d like, pass along my email address, or hit me up on Twitter (@kf)!

    • July 25, 2011 at 4:52 pm —

      Oof… I sympathize on the administration making advanced courses hard. And on the gender ratio. I was lucky enough never to be the only girl in an AP class, but I was one of three in my AP Physics class, and the only junior (and I was a 15-16 year old junior). Fortunately, I had the most wonderful teacher for that one, and half of my classmates were in marching band with me, so it turned out alright in the end, but it was still really tough that first quarter or so. My younger brothers are also running into administrative hassle… one of them wants to take more that 5 AP’s next year, as a young junior, and the school is kind of dragging their feet. Fortunately, because of my reputation, the school is more willing to give them whatever they need. But I don’t like that the system works that way.

      I also get the difficulty with student teaching your peers. I’ve run into that a bit too. I am supervising three high school juniors and seniors this summer at the lab I work at, and teaching them about paleontology. The organization the internship is run through almost didn’t give me the contract, because I am only 18. However, my supervisor stepped in, saying I was the most qualified and deserved the job. But I’m sworn to secrecy about my age, which is unfortunate. It’s come up a couple times with my students, and I have to give some lame answer like “I’m old enough to be a college junior.”

      Sounds like your situation has worked out for the best so far, if not quite how you’d hoped it to.

      I’m not in very good contact with “Derek” (I changed everyone’s name to protect privacy) since I started college, but I’ll see if I can get back in touch with him, and then pass your name along if that’s successful. 🙂

  3. July 26, 2011 at 4:16 am —

    I wish someone would have told me that while I was in high school. Instead, I had to settle in learning calculus by myself by reading books and internet web pages because I didn’t have the stupid requirements for the class. Not only were my high school math classes really lame, it was sooo slow. Plus, when I started learning calculus, I started wondering what the big deal with the requirements were.

    • July 27, 2011 at 9:01 am —

      That’s unfortunate to hear. Teaching only to the requirements or the content of the tests is one of the things that bothers me most about public schools. Some do well at adding extensions and making the content interesting… others not so much. If there’s one thing I could eliminate, it would be those requirements that keep teachers stuck to the content of a standardized test.

  4. August 1, 2011 at 1:22 pm —

    I appreciate the motivation to learn that’s expressed here, but skipping grades, taking college classes, and graduating early don’t really count as “dropping out.”

    • August 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm —

      Technically, I suppose you’re correct. However, all of my friends who did alternative programs never received a high school diploma, and a few didn’t get a GED either, so by that definition, they are drop-outs.

      And it’s a lot simpler to explain the amount of alternative schooling, grade skipping, early graduation, and early college that occurred in my friend circle by saying that “All my friends are dropouts” than to explain each individual non-traditional track. 🙂

  5. August 1, 2011 at 10:17 pm —

    That’s right, you don’t need to go to school, landlords let you stay in really cool apartments for free if they find out you dropped out. Also, food is completely free and you never need a car because a magic unicorn comes and gives you rides everywhere.

    • August 2, 2011 at 11:37 am —

      I don’t think anyone is saying that you don’t need an education. She’s just arguing that the traditional high school system may not be the best fit for everybody, and that there are alternative systems that can be just as effective.

      • August 2, 2011 at 12:49 pm —

        Thanks, Mindy. That’s very much the point I was going for.
        Bebop, I never said dropping out and doing nothing was a good idea. It’s not. However, you don’t have to complete a “normal”, four-year, public school/standardized test curriculum to get into a good college program and get a good job doing the thing(s) you love. Not one of my friends expected to get anything for free. They just refocused their efforts into the things they felt were more suited to achieving their goals.

  6. August 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm —

    I know this is an out of date reply. But I think it merits saying that this information is only applicable to the US and maybe Canada… I’m not sure how it works here. Most other countries do not let you go to university before 18 no matter how smart you are. You can’t skip grades either. The closest thing you can do is leave school at 16 and take your university entry exams at 17-18 after studying on your own.
    To put it another way, I have 5 or 6 friend that left school early and not one of them went to university.

    I think the important point is to explore your opportunities. I know many people who did better by not going to university and instead went straight to apprenticeships or focusing on their art.

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