By Dr. Howard Liebman, CEO and District Superintendent, SHCOE

There is an epidemic in the United States that gets little recognition—the high school dropout crisis. Every 26 seconds another student gives up on school, resulting in more than 1 million American dropouts a year, or 7,000 every day. Today, there are nearly 40 million adults without a high school diploma and there are limited options available for students age twenty-two and older who are looking to return to high school.

So, the real challenge is, “how do we address this overwhelming problem and re-engage these students back into the educational system?” I think it involves addressing the educational trauma that impacted many of these students in their previous high school experiences.

Educational Trauma?
Most people would not associate the term “trauma” with the high school dropout experience, yet through my educational background I found that it is the reality for many of the 40 million adults in the U.S. without a high school diploma. Some of my initial clinical social work experience focused on how people respond to trauma; I believe that many humans respond to educational failure—whatever the circumstances—in much the same way they respond to a traumatic event.

For example, if you walk down an alley and you are mugged, every time you walk down an alley again, whether you’re conscious of it or not, you will have a “fight or flight” response. Most people have a flight response to trauma. They run and do not look back. A lifelong flight response regarding academic environments is particularly problematic for high school dropouts, whose very economic and social stability is premised upon their ability to increase their level of education.*

Reversing the Cycle
When we established Career Online High School it was with the idea of creating an academic environment that helps re-engage adults back into the educational system and provides them with real-world, applicable educational programs to prepare them for the world of work. But I knew that in order to deliver those academic and career outcomes, we needed to redress our students’ educational trauma and reverse that knee-jerk flight response by offering extensive and ongoing support in safe and trusting environments. Public libraries represent the perfect “learning lab” and “trusted” environment for students.

The Role of Public Libraries
Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) took a giant leap in making this happen in early March. LAPL is the first public library in the United States to offer an accredited vocational high school diploma for their patrons. Our program is now available in all of its 78 branch locations and 11 literacy centers. It’s a win-win when you place a leading-edge educational program within the nurturing and trusting environment of a public library.

And this is just the beginning! Public library systems across the U.S. can join the effort to re-engage students back into the education process. In doing so, public libraries will also demonstrate their critical impact on the quality of life and economic growth of their communities by enabling library patrons to earn an accredited high school diploma and credentialed career certificate.

Working together, we can fight the “flight” response that has been ingrained in students who have bad memories from their earlier student days and get them moving in a positive direction that will enhance their career opportunities and prepare them for the world of work.