Students who have been failed by the traditional education system are finding success in an alternative online career-based program with student support as its cornerstone. Smart Horizons Career Online Education’s partnerships with public and private entities ranging from non-profits to prisons to corporations enables the district to reach various types of learners.

Dr. Howard Liebman founded Smart Horizons Career Online Education (SHCOE) in late 2009 with one central mission in mind—to reach the approximately 45 million adults in the U.S. population who do not have a high school education and prepare them for the workplace.

“There is a growing dropout crisis in the United States. I believe Smart Horizons Career Online Education is beginning to serve an increasingly significant function in addressing this crisis that affects so many in our nation’s underserved populations,” Dr. Liebman said.

SHCOE provides students with an opportunity to earn a SACS accredited high school diploma, as well as complete coursework for a credentialed career certificate in one comprehensive program. “There are eight career tracks available to our students,” Dr. Liebman said. “We like to compare this portion of our curriculum to a college major at the high school level; its purpose is to prepare students for careers or post-secondary vocational training.”

As the nation’s first private SACS-accredited online school district, SHCOE has formed partnerships with businesses, community service organizations, post-secondary institutions, and both private and public schools; SHCOE is currently an online secondary education provider for 7 school districts and 85 career colleges. More recently, SHCOE has expanded its reach by establishing important collaborations with organizations as diverse as the Clinton Global Initiative, the Florida Department of Corrections, the Los Angeles Public Library, and even corporate giant Taco Bell.

SHCOE focuses on removing barriers to student success through an educational model centered on student support. This model’s origins are founded in Dr. Liebman’s educational background, which includes a master’s degree in Clinical Social Work and a Ph.D. in Education.

“Some of my initial clinical social work experience was on how people respond to trauma,” Dr. Liebman said. “I believe humans may respond to educational failure in much the same way that they respond to a traumatic event. If you walk down an alley and you’re mugged, every time you walk down an alley again, whether you’re conscious or not about it, you will have a fight or flight response. Most people have a flight reaction to trauma. They run and do not come back.”

Dr. Liebman applied this idea to those who have dropped out of high school. “Many of our current students have had negative experiences and received negative feedback in their traditional school settings. These events can produce ‘educational trauma,’ which creates a mindset that can activate a lifelong flight response regarding academic environments.” In addition, Dr. Liebman says that for many students educational trauma can create feelings of helplessness and disempowerment toward the educational system.

Dr. Liebman believes that students who have experienced educational trauma will benefit from the kind of supportive education environment provided by SHCOE. “In our schools, students are enveloped in support from beginning to end—from academic coaches and teachers to technical and enrollment support staff. For students who have been branded as ‘dropouts’ or ‘failures’ of the educational system, this sort of hands-on support is essential. We understand that the traditional educational system may have failed these students, but the message they get from us is, ‘We believe in you. You can do this. We are here to help you do it.’ This mitigates the standard ‘flight response’ that students have been conditioned to make.”

This approach was a perfect fit for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a nonprofit organization launched in 2005 by President Bill Clinton dedicated to the creation and implementation of innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges—including the dropout crisis. In July of 2013, SHCOE signed a “Commitment to Action” agreement with CGI to launch new career certificate programs in the areas of food service and retail, and engage corporations in those industries to commit to a scholarship-matching program for their employees, many of whom lack a high school education.

“CGI offers the perfect platform to further our mission to provide an antidote to educational trauma and fight the dropout crisis head on,” Dr. Liebman said. “So far we have brought Taco Bell on board as the first of our major corporate partnerships and we are very excited about other prospects on the horizon. It’s a big plus for us to have CGI’s formal endorsement.”

Whether through the corporate world, career colleges, school districts, government agencies, public library systems, or community service organizations, SHCOE is making itself available to a growing number of adult learners who want to further their education and enhance their career opportunities and lives. “Our program forms the perfect foundation for successful entry into the workforce or matriculation into post-secondary career education,” Dr. Liebman said. “We’re proud of the progress we’ve made so far, but this is only the beginning.”

Dr. Richard Goldman, Chairman of the Board for SHCOE, provided insight into SHCOE’s role in addressing the high school dropout epidemic in the United States. While speaking to 100 national leaders in K–12 education, he asked, “Who here is showing any concern for the 45 million adult high school dropouts?” Not one person held up his or her hand.

“My point is that Dr. Liebman has had his hand up for 4 years, waving to everyone and anyone saying, ‘Here are 45 million people, many of whom have experienced educational trauma, and here is a way to help them experience educational success that is designed to translate to employment success,’” said Dr. Goldman.