View Full Version : Starting school for the first time at age 16

02-15-2012, 02:36 AM
I'm going to do plenty of my own research on this, but I'm in no rush so I thought I'd post here first

Basically I have a 16 year old protagonist who has never had any formal schooling. She can't read or write, but she's fairly intelligent (not educated, but intelligent). How would the school system deal with her? This is in New York, but a slightly altered version, so other state procedures are welcome.

Her girlfriend is her age and already in high school. I was hoping my MC could attend high school, but take very remedial classes? I just don't know how that would work since she can barely read (she started learning a month before this would take place).

I'm thinking some states would just put her in junior high.

I'm also interested in what type of students they'd put her with. Do they separate students with mental/learning disabilities from those who are just behind? What's the outlook like?

Anyway, any input is welcome. Being 11 years behind in school is obviously an immense disadvantage, but you can't stick a 16 year old girl in kindergarten.

02-15-2012, 02:47 AM
well depends on the state, money etc, but it'd be one to one lessons, if she was admitted.

actually not sure bout US of A, but imagine its not too different.

Remedial does not always mean L Diff., but might be mild LD

Fully L. Diff students tend to have their own schools.

But in her case, it would be one to one, unless your talking some dirt poor backwater place

02-15-2012, 06:53 AM
My school tried to "mainstream" their extreme special needs students, which essentially meant they were completely separated from the general population for their core courses but when it came to electives like choir, they could be placed in with other students. They also seemed to be mainstreamed in groups - several special needs students placed in a "mainstream" class together.

02-15-2012, 11:02 AM
I'm a high school teacher and I've actually worked with students like this before. They were immigrants, typically African refuges, and the city said that we had to place them by age, not academics. I'll never forget the confused stares I got on my first day when I handed out pencils; some of my students had never had pencils before and weren't quite sure what to do with one. It's important to note that this girl would NOT technically be in special education in most places (not sure about New York, but this would be true everywhere I've worked). Unless she's diagnosed with an actual learning disability, simply being behind does not qualify you for special education.

My students were actually lucky in that they were also ESOL students (English to Speakers of Other Languages), so they were able to take special classes designed to meet their language proficiency levels and we simply adjusted the core curriculum in those specific classes. They did take their electives with everyone else, but outside of a few instances, those didn't end up posing much of a problem. There's not really much of a prerequisite for art, as an example. Please note that ESOL is still not considered special education! It might look similar but they are fundamentally different and schools are not legally allowed to include ESOL under the special ed umbrella.

If your MC isn't an ESOL student, it sucks but she's going to get even less support. There's no funding for "students who are simply behind but have no diagnosis we can blame". And at least around here, we're not allowed to hold students back either; if they're still very young, like kindergarten or 1st grade, we might get away with it as a developmental issue, but by the time they hit junior high and high school, we have to let you move on anyway. There's a little bit of leeway in high school since you can't graduate without the proper credits, but say an 8th grader fails every last one of their courses: they're going on to high school no matter what. There would be a ton of classroom supports put in place, like after-school tutoring or modified assignments (easier reading levels on assignments, taking tests orally instead of on paper, that sort of thing), but in the end, even those aren't legally enforceable without special education paperwork like an IEP. So if some completely worthless teacher decided he or she didn't want to do that, we wouldn't be able to force the issue. It sucks, but like everything else it comes back to funding. States won't fund services for students who "don't really need them" (as determined by a doctor's diagnosis, not the teachers).

02-15-2012, 12:22 PM
You might want to do a little research on adult literacy (not ESOL) experiences in Brazil or South Africa, where entering the school system late in adolescence is common.

The biggest problem at first may be hand-eye co-ordination because when such skills are learned in early childhood, they become internalised fairly quickly through force of habit. It is much harder to learn how to write legibly or quickly enough when you are older.

And then there is the problem of 'unlearning' cherished beliefs that have never been tested or challenged in a formal school environment. The greatest strength and skill that most late learners bring to literacy programs is an excellent memory shaped by oral traditions, direct observation and sound, use of all senses and not just the mental rationalising faculties. This enhanced memory, sadly, will deteriorate as the need for it lessens.

02-15-2012, 04:00 PM
I'm in Canada, not the US, but for what it's worth...

If we had a student like that, a lot of it would come down to budget. It always seems to come down to budget. And when the budget's involved, it's political. Does the student have a strong adult advocate who will call the principal, call the superintendent, call the School Board, call the Ministry of Education to demand assistance? Will the student herself be a strong advocate of her right to an education?

If this level of demand is in place, I think the student would be put in our Resource room or Alt. Ed. classroom for at least a few periods a day. She might join other students for tech or art or music or other courses where she could get by without full literacy. She'd be given remedial help with reading and writing, and once she had the basics, she'd probably be set to work on the packages that we have put together for students who are off school with extended illnesses. I only know about these for high school students, but I assume that there are equivalents for elementary school subjects.

If she doesn't have someone to push for her, and if she's not SERIOUSLY motivated herself... she'd probably come to a few classes, get frustrated, and stop coming. Seriously. Almost all of our serious attendance issues are based on students who are struggling to succeed in school. After year after year of coming to the big brown buildings and feeling stupid and frustrated, I don't blame them for looking for alternatives. If your character is also used to more freedom and scheduling flexibility, she's going to have a hell of a time making herself come, and she may give up.

She'll also have to deal with the kids she's coming into contact with. Resource kids tend to be coping with MID or LD issues, and their behaviour is not usually a significant factor in their success. But the Alt. Ed. kids are often dealing with serious instability OUTSIDE of school, serious learning deficits INSIDE of school, and if they show up, the often have many layers of misbehaviours all set up to keep them from having to address their learning challenges. An Alt. Ed. classroom can be a circus, and the teacher is not always the Ring Master. If your character's in there, she'll probably get good support from the teacher, when possible, but the other students will be a distraction and the teacher's energy will be spread pretty thin.

02-15-2012, 04:54 PM
Where I come from, they would make her start at freshman level classes. There is a certain number of credits you need to advance beyond each high school grade level, and she would have none. But they could not place her any lower than that. Also, she would not be placed with special ed kids unless she actually had a learning disability. And where I come from, remedial only existed for math. Every other subject only had regular and honors.

So yeah. Where I come from, she would probably be placed in the required classes for freshmen and then left to fend for herself.

02-15-2012, 09:15 PM
I asked a question very loosely related to this a while ago:


Possibly not that directly relevant to your question, but maybe some of the answers will help some.

02-16-2012, 02:44 AM
I'm not American (English), but I knew a couple of these really uneducated kids when I was in school. At my school, they were mainstreamed, by age, but they didn't separate the kids with learning disabilities/any other kinds of disabilities with the kids who needed serious remedial classes, weirdly. But they were in 'normal' classes (but the lowest academic 'stream'), with personal helpers, and then they had remedial classes.

02-17-2012, 04:38 AM
Thanks for all of these! I hadn't even thought of how they'd deal with her electives. that'll give me the opportunity to put some of the other characters in a gym or art class.

I'm guessing they'd make the placement test verbal since she can't read. Summer school makes sense. Maybe also a tutor. Sounds like a huge task, but from the answers it seems like it can be done if the student is determined and has an advocate.

Reps all around.

Might have to make some phone calls to the NYS department of ed.

02-17-2012, 06:41 AM
In ontario, she would be placed is 'essentials' courses - mainstream courses, but designed for kids going into the workplace after school. Very easy by any standards, but they would still be too hard for her. Depends on the teacher, but she may or may not be able to get more level appropriate work. Some teachers simply don't care enough to help even a really struggling student. At least, that's what happened to the ESL kids who hadn't had full formal schooling in their home countries when I tutored last year. There's generally a 'resource room' that can provide help - homework, some extra remedial, but not enough.

Electives would be general placement, but usually require reading/writing skills anyway and that would cause some problems.

Again, that's what I've seen of the Ontario system.

02-19-2012, 03:18 AM
I didn't read everyone else posts but we had students attend our school that were educated but didn't speak the language or read it so they were in remedial English UNTIL they were caught up with their peers or they took English as a Second Language classes, designed with the intention of teacher them. You might want to consider making her a IEP and allowing her special education classes and a special tutor. I know that Blind students or deaf students have a person who aids them through each class. Perhaps she could have someone like that who assists her.

02-19-2012, 04:42 AM
In the school where I taught for almost four decades (grades 7-9) this is what they would do:

Place her in Grade 9. On her schedule she'd take art, gym, music. She might take science for social reasons and to participate in activities, experiments, etc. (I had a few kids like this over the years. One was home-schooled but never learned to read. I taught science!)

The remainder of the day she'd be with a reading specialist and/or an aide. If she is intelligent, she'd learn to read in no time, maybe a few weeks. It would be intense, one-on-one: flashcards, simple readers, advancing to higher readers as quickly as possible.

She'd probably be placed in all regular classes by mid-year, if not sooner.

Kids like her are often highly motivated and want to learn, to be in 'regular' classes with their new friends. Students her own age might also be used as 'tutors' and be placed (like once a week) in her reading class with her, to read along with her, to help her out, to give her confidence, etc. (These kids would be carefully selected and would include boys and girls and possibly older honors students who'd come down from the high school to help, too. These kids would receive community service credits for doing so.)

02-19-2012, 09:01 PM
Like The Ink Goddess, I'm from England, so I don't know how helpful my advice would be, but I'll give it a go.

In my school at least (high achieving, wealthy area, but not grammar or private school) students like yours or ones with learning difficulties just get shoved in ACE (don't know what it stands for, but it's basically a portakabin where they're shut in with some learning support assistants next door who occasionally come in and try and teach them something). If your character's school is one that only cares about good results, you might find a potential source of conflict in the fact that she's stuck in with all the - for want of a better word - 'special' kids. In The Br1ghtest Fe11, my FMC is intelligent and dyslexic, and hates that she's lumped in with all the 'thickos', just because of her dyslexia.

Your character might also be put in the mainstream classes right at the bottom, with a learning support assistant, but it would be pretty impossible to get any work done because as well as the less intelligent kids the bottom classes are filled with the average or above intelligence kids who just don't want to learn, and they get pretty crazy.

02-19-2012, 09:34 PM
Thanks again. Another thing that might matter is that she's being put into a pretty expensive private school. I think the attention from teachers will be better, but perhaps the reactions from other students would be worse.

02-19-2012, 10:12 PM
If she is being put into an expensive private school, all the planning and discussion about what will be done with her and for her will be taken care of before she is accepted. I would expect a summer, if not longer, of intensive tutoring before she starts, so she can at least read and compute, followed by a lot of after school tutoring to bring her up on academic subjects. The school might make that a condition of admitting her.

Why is it that she's never had any education? Has she been living on a desert island or locked up by crazy relatives?

02-20-2012, 05:40 AM
I had a cousin teach in an 'elite' private school in MA for years. She taught English, theater and reading. According to her (and in agreement with Lil above) the girl would receive private tutoring the summer before school begins.

Again, a highly motivated and highly intelligent girl would learn to read within weeks.

There are children who can teach themselves to read - at ages 4 or 5. (My two daughters did so and I gave them no formal instruction and to this day I have no clue how they did it, though I suspect the older girl helped the younger one.)

So for an intelligent girl the age you're talking about? I would guess she could learn the basics of reading and writing - especially with superior help - in a few weeks.

Debbie V
02-20-2012, 07:48 PM
I worked in a public high school on Long Island and had a student come from a Latin American country with no prior education. He was placed in ninth grade, although older (I think 16), and sent to a BOCES program specifically for this type of student. NYC also has specific programs. I'm not sure about BOCES in the rest of the state.

The private school seems unlikely to me. Private schools often don't have the capability to deal with any other than the typical student. Although if there is no language issue, maybe.

If the student is an immigrant from a country where English is not the primary language, NYS law requires English as a Second Language or bilingual education. Even though the issue here is primarily academic exposure, the student would be in these classes until he tests to academic proficiency. The BOCES program was a bilingual program. This student spoke English well enough to be understood, but reading and writing count.

The dept of Ed has a website where the law can be researched - NYSED.gov. There is a specific name for this type of student, but I'm not coming up with it. Good luck.

02-20-2012, 08:12 PM
@Debbie thanks for the link