On a recent afternoon, Kathryn Roldan left the Charlestown child care center where she works as an infant and toddler teacher with an extra spring in her step.
Roldan, 22, graduated high school a few weeks prior and was still feeling elated.
"It’s always been an accomplishment I’ve wanted to complete in my life, definitely," the Chelsea resident said. "I love education."
This moment is particularly important to Roldan because there was a time in her life, not too long ago, when a high school diploma seemed out of reach. She was 16 when she decided, with much difficulty, to drop out of school and get a full-time job in retail to help her financially struggling family.
"I was very torn," Roldan recalls. "I am a big family person, so seeing them struggle was taking a lot of my energy. So I decided to step up and do something."
Still, despite her work schedule, Roldan wanted to finish high school. A few years ago, she learned one way to do so — through her school district’s alternative high school, Chelsea Opportunity Academy. Just like many alternative education programs in Massachusetts, COA allowed her to earn credits at her own pace and didn’t require her to be in the building five days a week like Chelsea High School.
Alternative schools, which operate in this state either as schools within public schools, or standalone charter schools, began cropping up in large numbers in the U.S. in the 1990s. They are typically geared toward students who are behind on credits and juggling multiple responsibilities, such as parenting, learning English as a new language or working full-time jobs to help support their families.
Now, some alternative schools in Massachusetts are seeing increased enrollment among students who began working full-time jobs since the onset of the pandemic or who are anxious about returning to a traditional high school after a long period of remote or hybrid learning.
While students still have to pass the state standardized test, known as the MCAS, in order to graduate, the additional flexibility alternative schools provide helps prevent many kids from dropping out of public school completely, school leaders said.
Ron Schmidt, the principal of the Chelsea Opportunity Academy, said since the onset of the pandemic, he’s seen more working students like Roldan enroll in the school.
"We had a lot of kids move into construction jobs during the pandemic," Schmidt noted.
"Part of being a school that works with so many students who have competing priorities outside of school is flexibility," he said.
Uptick in enrollment fueled by kids experiencing anxiety
And there’s a new crop of students enrolling, too – kids with severe social anxiety and ADHD that struggled to learn after returning to large high school settings when classrooms reopened during the pandemic.
Leaders at the Holyoke Opportunity Academy have also noticed these patterns.
"What we found was, we had the highest uptick from students who were experiencing just a lot of anxiety coming back to a full building of 1,000-plus students," said Geoffrey Schmidt (no relation to Ron Schmidt), the principal at HOA.
The school, which operates as a separate program within the Holyoke High School, also offers flexible schedules.Geoffrey Schmidt thinks that flexibility has been key to not losing many of the working students HOA was already serving.
"Students know that they can balance work and school a little bit when they come here," he said.
Holyoke's program has fielded so much interest from families the district is considering adding an eighth grade curriculum.
Statewide, it’s tough to say how many of the 200-plus alternative high schools have seen increased enrollment since the pandemic began. Since many exist within larger schools, like Chelsea Opportunity Academy and Holyoke Opportunity Academy, it’s difficult for state officials to track.
But individual school leaders can independently confirm the jump in their numbers.
Holyoke, for example, has seen a roughly 45% enrollment gain since 2019. The Phoenix Academy in Lawrence is also up by about 15%. Mike Caban, a recruiter there, said he's noticed there are a lot more families who want their kids to work right now. During the pandemic, many of those teenagers began working and contributing to their family income.
But Caban said just telling families that a diploma is important isn't a strong argument. Which is why he takes time to explain the opportunities that completing high school will open up for their child.
"I try to really break down the long term effect that not having a high school diploma will have on their student," he said.
It helps that Phoenix Academy doesn’t have traditional grade levels. Students can take as much time as they need to work through required courses, without worrying about getting left behind. In a way, Caban said, the pandemic has helped expand this model of education.
"I think families are seeing that their needs fit better in a place like Phoenix," he said, "because they’re more open to seeing that education is different now."
Roldan, the Chelsea Opportunity Academy graduate, already sees the opportunities a high school diploma is opening up in her life. She'll start classes at Bunker Hill Community College in the fall. Roldan's long-term goal is to earn at least a master's degree and become a teacher one day.
"I love English literature," she said. "I see myself teaching in higher education."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Geoffrey Schmidt. The story has been updated. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on July 19, 2022.
This segment aired on July 19, 2022.