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Tiffany Pruitt

Tiffany Pruitt is pictured with her children Bella Wilson, 3, and Kevin Flournoy, 14, in their Casper home. Pruitt, who earned a GED after dropping out of high school in Oregon, is planning on attending school to become a dental assistant.

In the 10 years since she dropped out of an Oregon high school, Tiffany Pruitt worked as a waitress, a bartender and exotic dancer, not to mention numerous jobs in fast food and retail.

"Without a GED or high school diploma, I couldn't get hired as a receptionist or do clerical work at doctor's office," she said.

The single mother of two doesn't always earn enough to provide for her children; she's been off and on government assistance programs throughout the years.

While Pruitt has found work, albeit often low-paying, other high school dropouts have difficulty getting employment in the first place.

Arica Wallace, 17, is studying for her GED at Casper College. She has applied for many jobs in fast food and retail, but rarely gets a call back.

"It's really hard to get a job when you're being compared to all these people who do have a high school degree or GED," she said.

Throughout the 2010-11 school year, 462 girls in grades nine through 12 dropped out of Wyoming high schools, compared to 589 boys.

Choosing to drop out of high school has a significantly greater negative impact on girls than it does on boys.

Nationwide, girls who drop out of high school experience higher unemployment, earn less money and are more likely to use social programs than their male counterparts, according to the National Law Center.

 

Earnings

In general, Wyoming women often work in fields that are traditionally dominated by women, such as social work, nursing and teaching, according to "The Status of Wyoming's Working Women: 2011." In fact, about half of women who work in Wyoming are employed in fields such as health care, education and leisure. These fields tend to pay less than those traditionally held by men, such as mining.

Overall, women in Wyoming make 65.5 cents for every dollar a man makes -- the worst gender wage gap in the nation.

The gap is even larger for women who don't have a high school diploma.

In Wyoming, the wage gap between male and female high school dropouts was 60 percent in 2012, up from 51 percent in 2011, according to Catherine Connolly, professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Wyoming and author of "The Status of Wyoming's Working Women: 2011." Women without high school degrees can expect to earn at least $10,000 less than their male counterparts, she said.

Women who drop out of high school also face more unemployment than their male counterparts. Nationwide, only 53 percent of female high school dropouts were employed in 2006, while 77 percent of their male peers were employed, according to the National Women's Law Center.

 

Education

For women, more education is the fastest road to better wages.

"Education is a key factor for women in Wyoming, even more so than it is for men," Connolly said.

Nationwide, the average woman has to have some college education in order to surpass the earnings of male high school dropouts, according to the National Law Center. The average male high school dropout earns $24,689 while the average female with some college education earns $26,513.

The gender-wage gap is greatest among high school dropouts. Women can expect to earn wages closer to those of their male counterparts with each educational milestone they pass. Yet, it's not until women complete the highest degrees that the gender wage gap starts to close.

Pruitt, the woman who worked all the odd jobs, earned her GED after moving to Casper two years ago.

"I wanted to further my education and actually have a career for my family," she said.

She hopes to take 10-week dental assistant course at Casper College in January. The free training is offered to parents who earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. It's funded by a federal Education and Training for Self-sufficiency grant, the Wyoming Workforce Development Center and Casper College. The program will be offered for the fourth year, if the grant is approved.

 

Female dropouts

While girls drop out of high school for many of the same reasons as boys, family responsibilities have a greater impact on their decision to leave school.

National reports show that 30 to 50 percent of female high school dropouts indicate pregnancy or parenting responsibilities as their primary reason for dropping out.

Boys, on the other hand, are less likely to drop out due to parenting responsibilities. A Gates Foundation survey showed that parenting played a role in 33 percent of female dropouts and 19 percent of male dropouts, according to the National Law Institute.

According to the Wyoming Department of Health, 622 teens in the state ages 15 to 19 gave birth in 2011. Eighty percent of them used Medicaid as their primary source of payment. Data on how many of those teen moms were in high school at the time and how many dropped out is not available.

Heidi Richins, a family and consumer science instructor at Sheridan High School, has run a program called "Parenteen" to help teen parents get their high school diplomas for 20 years. An average of 10 students participate in the program each year, the majority of whom are girls.

Oftentimes, the fathers are older and already out of high school, Richins said. Even for those who are in high school, the brunt of child-rearing responsibilities tends to fall on the mothers.

"Very few of the fathers become custodial parents, so it becomes a significant responsibility to the young ladies," Richins said.

Balancing work, school and child-rearing responsibilities is the greatest challenge to teen parents, she added. School may be the first to go when students can no longer keep up.

Girls who get married during high school are also more likely to drop out than their male counterparts.

Jan Torres quit high school in Rock Springs when she got married at the age of 16.

"I was in love, and in those days you didn't go to high school if you were married," said Torres, who is now 65.

She worked menial jobs, and once took a receptionist position even though she didn't know how to type. She went back to work after her boss left each evening to finish typing using her index fingers.

She got her GED a couple of years later. When she started working at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, she took college classes. Today, she is head of the psychology department there and specializes in adolescent psychology.

These days, only a handful of Wyomingites get married under age 18. In Natrona County, five marriage licenses were given to teens ages 16 to 17 in the last year, said Tracy Good, chief deputy county clerk. She hasn't seen requests for court consent in years.

For those that do get married while in high school, girls are much less likely to finish school than boys.

"If high school girls gets married, about 11 percent of them complete their education," Torres said. "If a boy gets married, about 60 percent will do it."

Carol Seavey is special sections editor at the Casper Star-Tribune. Contact her at 307-266-0544 or carol.seavey@trib.com. Follow her on twitter at Carol_Seavey.

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