Elmore County High School in Eclectic, Alabama (Trisha Powell Crain | [email protected])
Posted by AL.COM, By Trisha Powell Crain | [email protected]
All 17-year-old Phillip Nix wanted to do was enroll in his rural Alabama school when he moved back from Colorado.
Not so fast, school officials said.
“I was told that I couldn’t be accepted because I was 17 years old,” Nix said, who spent the first semester of his junior year attending school in Denver.
Nix said he couldn’t believe that Alabama county school officials had the right to deny him a public education solely based on his age.
Nix took a job at the local yarn factory, but still yearned for that high school diploma.
In August, he tried to enroll in a second high school in the county system, but again was told no. This time, Nix took to social media to plea for help.
“I’m being denied my public education.”
In Alabama, county superintendents have complete discretion over whether to enroll a student who is 17 or older.
It’s not spelled out clearly in state law, but officials rely on an interpretation of the state’s compulsory attendance law, according to Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey.
Alabama law requires all students between the ages of 6 and 17 to attend school. Between is the key word.
“There’s kind of a hole in the law there,” Mackey said. “There’s a mandatory attendance law which we take as meaning the schools having to offer [education] but there’s nothing that says that.”
Six other states—Florida, Kansas, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont—and the District of Columbia have not set maximum age limits on access to a free public education according to information published in 2017 by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Of those that have set a limit, Alabama is the only state where that age is 17. Three states set the maximum at age 19, eight at age 20, 26 at age 21, five at age 22, and one at age 26.
But there are exceptions.
An Alabama student with a disability covered under the federal special education law is entitled to educational services through age 21 or until the student graduates with a regular high school diploma.
Plus, had Nix lived 20 miles east in Tallassee, or 30 miles northeast in Alexander City, he couldn’t have been turned away because Alabama law requires city school systems to enroll students until they turn 19.
The city systems operate under a different state law, spelled out clearly: “Such children who are six years of age and less than 19 years of age on the date school opens shall be entitled to admission to the elementary, junior and senior high schools.”
But Nix is zoned for one of Alabama’s 67 county systems.
In the social media video, Nix said he didn’t want to have to move back to Colorado to get his diploma, but that’s what he ended up doing and is now enrolled in school there and on track to get his diploma—on time— in May.
Elmore County Superintendent Richard Dennis, citing privacy laws, couldn’t talk specifically about why Nix was turned away, but said he trusted his principals to make the decision whether a student is allowed to enroll in school there.
“Many school systems,” Dennis said, “if you turn 17 and you are not following guidelines, you’re behind significantly on credits, you’re having difficulties, you’re not a student with a special needs category, they will simply withdraw you and refer you to the local GED classes.”
Nix said he made good grades and was on track to graduate on time, something his Colorado high school principal confirmed.
Dennis, a principal in both Elmore and neighboring Autauga County for 20 years before being elected superintendent in 2016, said if a student had been in trouble or otherwise disciplined in the school the student left, that, too, could influence a principal’s decision.
There’s no formal checklist, Dennis said, but generally, as a principal, he would look at student records, and follow up with questions if there are any “red flags” in a student’s file. He recommended talking with Nix’s Colorado school and ask why Nix left.
In the video, Nix said he returned to Alabama because of family concerns. Nix told AL.com he received in-school suspension shortly before he left Colorado in December 2017 but returned to school there before withdrawing and returning to Alabama.
The only reason that Nix said he has been given for denying him enrollment in his home school district is that he turned 17.
More than 200 comments were made on Nix’s Facebook video, with some insinuating there must be more to the story—there wasn’t, Nix said—others tagging the superintendent, and many tagging members of the media.
Nix’s Colorado principal Matt Schmidt confirmed Nix had not been in any trouble that would result in him not being allowed back into school there.
More than a dozen others—nearly all in Elmore County—claimed either they or someone they knew or were related to were also denied enrollment at age 17.
In Alabama, there’s no way to tell how many students are turned away because they have aged out of high school. A student who does not earn a diploma and is no longer enrolled in an Alabama school is considered either a dropout or—if the student enrolled elsewhere, as Nix did—as withdrawn.
Under-credited and overaged
Allyson Sneed said her son, Josh Simmons was not allowed to re-enroll in school after moving from one Elmore County high school attendance zone to another last summer. Simmons turned 17 a few weeks before the summer started.
By his own account, Simmons struggled in school in Elmore County. At the end of what should have been his junior year, though, Simmons hadn’t earned enough credits to be considered even a sophomore. His transcript reflected mostly F’s in core classes.
Teachers there never offered additional help, Simmons said, and school just wasn’t a place he wanted to be. He was bullied, he said, and got suspended once for fighting—defending himself against a bully.
Simmons said he had a reputation at Wetumpka. “The teachers knew my name,” he said. “They thought I was gonna be trouble. I was just waiting to be kicked out.”
Simmons said administrators routinely threatened students with being kicked out once the student turned 17. “They’d say ‘we don’t have to keep you once you turn 17,’” he said, something the superintendent said he hadn’t heard.
Being 17 and still classified as a ninth-grader meant Simmons wouldn’t graduate on time.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Sneed said. “I was never told that Josh was so far behind.”
Bronson Britnell was enrolled in Shelby County schools for most the previous school year, and when he and his mother moved to town, he tried to register in Wetumpka High School.
Nope, school officials said. Britnell would not be enrolling in Elmore County schools, they said. “They just said they weren’t going to accept him because he’s 17,” Britnell’s mom, Heidi, said. “Period.”
Bronson turned 17 just weeks before he tried to enroll.
His transcript, like Josh’s, showed he was not yet considered a sophomore, despite having attended nearly three years of high school in Shelby County.
Though Bronson had been enrolled in the gifted program in elementary school in Shelby County, he said he had fallen behind, struggling in math in both ninth- and tenth-grade. His grades suffered again his junior year, and Heidi said she withdrew him from Shelby County High School a few months before the end of the school year with the intent of enrolling him in an online school, but that didn’t work out.
After moving to Wetumpka, Britnell wanted to go back to public school. But that was no longer an option, they found.
Both mothers said they don’t understand how a school system could let students fall through the cracks.
“They want an education,” Britnell said. “They want to succeed.”
All three young men—-Nix, Simmons, and Britnell—were caught in a gap. Between schools, turning 17, and trying to enroll in a county school system.
Was Elmore County systematically denying enrollment to students who were behind, credit-wise? What about the other dozen or so commenters who said the same thing had happened to them?
Superintendent Dennis said there were plenty of 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds enrolled and even a few who will be 19 before they graduate, but they likely have not had gaps in enrollment.
“Obviously you’re looking at it one student at a time,” Dennis said. Students fall behind for all sorts of reasons, he said, but once you start missing too much school, failing too many classes, it’s hard to catch up.
And older students who are behind can become a problem on a high school campus, Dennis added, where students as young as 14 are attending school.
Both Dennis and state superintendent Mackey said making decisions for the good of the entire student population sometimes means making a tough decision for an individual student.
“If a student has fallen so far behind that they’re not going to graduate on time,” Mackey said, “you have to ask two questions.”
The first question, Mackey said, is whether being in school is the best use of their time when there are other options like the GED or JobCorps, a federally-funded program to help students aged 16 to 24 train for a job and earn a GED or high school diploma.
A third option, he said, is Alabama’s non-traditional high school diploma option, which offers students a chance to earn remaining credits through the community college program.
Recent changes to the program, though, removed 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds from being eligible for that program. State education officials said the change was made to ensure this option wasn’t encouraging students to drop out.
Additionally, Mackey said, some school districts, but not all have what are called “drop back in” programs for students who have left high school without earning enough credits for a diploma.
Elmore County has a program called RAMP, Dennis said, to help students earn the credits they need to be able to graduate on time. The program currently has nearly 40 students participating, he said.
The second question to consider, Mackey said, is why the student wants to come back.
“Unfortunately, what we do find is that sometimes students do come back for inappropriate reasons,” Mackey said. “And so if a local superintendent or principal looks at that and they say this is not the best for the students in my school and it’s not best for this student, [they should ask] what are some other options.”
Dennis said he’s seen students who want to return to school for social rather than academic reasons, and it’s important to determine what kind of effort the student is likely to put into their school work. Past performance in school is usually a good determinant, he said.
Mackey said principals and superintendents have to look at what’s best for the entire student body. “I would expect that adults in charge of a school and a school system are going to be making decisions based on what’s in the best interest of that child and based on the best interests of all of the other children in that school,” Mackey said. “We have to look at all of that.”
School officials in Madison County said they try to keep students enrolled and working toward their diploma. Shelby County officials said they do as well, but there may be times when a student would be in their early 20s before they graduate, and in that case, they would likely encourage the student to pursue a GED.
Since 2012, Elmore County’s overall graduation rates have been very close to the state average, though there is variation among the county’s four high schools. Three of the county’s four high schools have seen double-digit percentage-point graduation rate increases since 2012.
And though there has been an increasing focus on measures like graduation rates in recent years, Dennis denies that the reason for refusing to enroll a student is because of a potential negative impact on that graduation rate.
But Dennis acknowledged a negative impact on a school’s graduation rate could be a concern for some. If a student has never set foot on the school’s campus, and the student is over-aged and under-credited, Dennis said, “Principals are not going to pull in students who are going to be dropouts on them immediately.”
Of the three students—Nix, Simmons, and Britnell—only Simmons counts as a dropout. Nix is considered withdrawn because his last school of record is in Colorado. Britnell, too, counts as withdrawn since he directed school records be sent to an online school.
Changing the law
When asked if Alabama’s law should be more in line with other states’ laws that clearly spell out how long a school must offer a student admission, Mackey said he didn’t see the need to change the law. Superintendents need the flexibility they currently have to look at individual cases on an as-needed basis, he said.
“When there are issues,” Mackey said, “we can deal with particular issues rather than trying to over-regulate.”
If principals are making bad decisions about not accepting students for enrollment, Mackey said, he expects superintendents and boards of education to get involved.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chairs the state’s House Education Policy committee and said she is aware of other gaps between laws governing cities and counties.
Collins said she anticipates passing a law to bring county schools in line with city schools.
In addition to closing that gap, Collins, a big supporter of school choice, said having more choices could have helped all three young men.
If they had a choice beyond the public school they’re zoned to attend, she said, they would likely be earning a diploma right now. Collins said online school is already an option and a charter school like Mobile’s ACCEL Day and Evening Academy, which helps at-risk students earn a diploma, could have helped, too.
“For students who want to be in a classroom near where they live,” Collins said, “they don’t have many options right now.”
Nix said he believes the law should be changed. “What difference has the law made but make it harder for children who want to go to school?” Nix asked. “It’s unfair, and it’s a life-changer to some.”
Britnell’s mom, Heidi, said she still has a hard time with the idea that schools in Alabama can just refuse to enroll a 17-year-old student. “That shouldn’t be okay,” she said. ” I thought schools are supposed to help students who struggle.”
Britnell said she wishes she had stayed better informed about her son’s academic struggles and pushed the school to help her son, but her work schedule made that difficult.
Britnell offered these words of caution to students and their parents: “The decisions [children] make, even from [age] 13 to 15, can affect you,” she said. “I had no idea that he wouldn’t be accepted to a public school at 17.”
And parents need to stay involved and communicate with the school because, she said, “They’re not going to communicate with you.”
As for Bronson, he said he wishes he had taken school more seriously when he was younger. And while school officials never offered real help, he said by the time he asked for help from a teacher, it was just too hard to catch up.
“I should’ve done my homework,” Bronson said. But neither he nor his mother had any idea that the school could simply refuse to enroll him at age 17, he said. It was a tough reality to face.
It took Bronson nearly six months to find a job in Wetumpka, but he has been working at Pizza Hut for nine months and is taking GED classes with Simmons a few blocks from his house.
Both mothers said no one from the public school offered any information or real help finding a path toward a GED, only telling them to call Trenholm State Community College in Montgomery, which was too far away, they said.
Superintendent Dennis said information about JobCorps, the GED program, and the non-traditional high school diploma option is given to all students who withdraw from Elmore County’s schools, a claim Britnell and Sneed disputed.
A flyer Dennis shared with AL.com was passed along to Sneed and Britnell, and that’s how they found out about the local GED program where Simmons and Bronson are now taking classes, they said.
Both mothers praised the GED program’s manager, saying his commitment to their sons’ education has made a big difference for Bronson and Simmons.
Bronson has passed one of the GED tests and will tackle the other three subject areas next.
Simmons, who admits he “could have done some things differently” while in school, has passed three portions of the GED—English, history, and science—and is on track to complete the math section before he would have graduated in May.
“So I’ll graduate before my friends,” Simmons said, something he wasn’t sure would happen at all at one point.
He’s working now and looking forward to getting his driver’s license—something state law won’t allow him to do until he completes his GED.
Sneed said while she doesn’t like how her son was treated in school, she is proud of him. “It didn’t stop him,” she said. “It didn’t make him stand still. He picked himself up and did what he had to do.”
Looking back, Nix said he still can’t believe all that happened over the past year.
“To sit and wonder if I was ever going to graduate was one of the scariest feelings of my life,” Nix wrote in a text to AL.com from Colorado, where he is enrolled at Pathways Futures Center, an alternative blended learning program in the Adams 12 school district where he was previously enrolled.
“This experience of being pushed away was difficult for me—the transition of moving across country for the second time—but it’s opened new windows for me,” he wrote.
On Jan. 10, right at midnight Alabama time, Nix sent this text from Colorado. “Completed my first day of school today.”
“I’m very excited. It was unreal being able to sit in a classroom again,” he wrote. “You don’t realize how much you miss it till you don’t have it.”
In May, if all goes as planned, he will graduate with a high school diploma. In Colorado.