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Another push to raise dropout age

Arnisha Davis dropped out of high school in 1991 after her freshman year. At age 15, she had to take care of the first of her nine children, tend to her mother's final days and find menial jobs for some income.

Today, Davis, 34, attends classes at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in downtown Lexington in hopes of getting her GED.

"It was a mistake for me to drop out of high school," she said. "I regret it. I regret it. I want to become somebody."

In an effort to stop Davis' story from repeating itself each school year, Gov. Steve Beshear has thrown his support behind a long-standing legislative proposal to raise the dropout age in Kentucky from 16 to 18.

"The economic benefits of such a move are obvious both to the individual involved and to the commonwealth," Beshear said in an interview last week in his Capitol office.

He pointed to studies that show most dropouts will earn much less than those with high school diplomas and probably will rely on public assistance. Many are predicted to commit crimes and serve time in prison, he said.

"We should be finding ways to ensure that our children can be success stories rather than failures," the Democratic governor says.

Beshear said he will recommend that lawmakers phase in the change: the compulsory school age would increase from 16 to 17 for incoming freshmen this fall and to 18 for those entering eighth grade.

By raising the dropout age gradually, Beshear can support the increase without providing money for more teachers, truancy officers and alternative schools in the next two-year budget, which faces a potential shortfall of $1.5 billion.

"During these tough economic times, it makes more sense to phase this in," he said.

Beshear will lay out his full budget plan to lawmakers Tuesday evening.

First lady Jane Beshear, a former schoolteacher who is advocating for a higher dropout age, said the price tag with full implementation has been estimated at $32 million a year, but she stressed that the figures are uncertain.

"We need to raise the age, but we can't do that until the support services are there," she said. "There is no extra money now in the state budget. But with this phase-in, we hope we will give school systems time to prioritize their money so they can add what is needed and get communities involved."

Warehouses?

Most education advocacy groups support raising the dropout age in principle, but they're concerned about the governor's decision to move forward without providing immediate funding.

Simply corralling apathetic students in a classroom is unfair to teachers and motivated students, they say.

"I am sympathetic to the teacher who would have a 17-year-old in class who didn't want to be there and have nothing more to offer than what you had when he was 16," said Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said teachers want to keep students in school until they graduate, "but we shouldn't just raise the age without providing the support.

"That would make everybody miserable."

Oxendine suggests that dropout prevention programs start in kindergarten.

"We should emphasize from the very beginning that failing to complete school is not an option. We may need more programs, maybe even some non-traditional programs, but you can't just start being concerned about dropouts when they hit high school."

Officials with the Kentucky Association of School Administrators and the Kentucky School Boards Association also warned against turning schools into a warehouses.

"Schools definitely will have to do and provide more," said Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

Mixed messages

Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, has been trying since 1998 to raise the state's dropout age.

"Not every student needs to go to college, but every student should be equipped with a high school education," he said.

Yonts said he has no patience for any board of education or teacher "who doesn't want to deal with the problem of dropouts. Such a teacher needs to develop a healthier attitude."

Still, he acknowledges the need for additional infrastructure, such as alternative schools.

Kentucky Youth Advocates, which favors raising the state's dropout age, said the move would raise expectations among students, their parents, school authorities and the general public.

As of January 2008, the group says, 22 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to require school attendance to age 18. Seven other states have raised the attendance age from 16 to 17.

Terry Brooks, a former high school principal who is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said research shows that raising the compulsory attendance age can play an important role in raising graduation rates.

"I think what the governor wants to do would make schools become more imaginative," Brooks said. "We now are sending kids a mixed message. We tell them they have to work hard in school but can drop out at 16."

However, Brooks said a higher dropout age should be only one part of a more comprehensive plan to increase graduation rates.

He said other ways to increase graduation rates include more programs designed for at-risk students, holding classes in non-traditional settings such as workplaces, and creating flexible schedules so students can attend school and work.

Susan Perkins Weston, a consultant for Kentucky's Prichard Committee, also recommends developing a common standard to calculate dropout rates.

The figures can get murky.

For example, the Kentucky Department of Education records how many students in grades nine through 12 drop out each year. In 2008, the state pegged the dropout rate at 3.3 percent of public high school students.

However, the Prichard Committee prefers to record how many students in the ninth grade finish high school in four years. The group says about 30 percent of Kentucky students don't finish high school in four years.

The lack of a consistent method for calculating graduation rates and dropout rates is a problem nationwide, Weston said.

Many of the formulas don't take into account students who find other ways to graduate, either through an adult education program or GED, she said.

'It won't work'

At Bluegrass Community and Technical College last week, not all the students in Arnisha Davis' GED class agreed that the state should raise the dropout age.

The thought of her nine kids repeating their mother's mistakes is enough to solidify Davis' support for the bill. "I preach to my children to stay and work hard in school," she said. "I want them to have it better than I did."

Others remain skeptical that a decree from Frankfort will make much difference to students who have decided school isn't for them.

"It won't work," said Jesse Williams, 20, who dropped out in his senior year. "When I was 17, I had my first kid and then my second kid a year later. School had nothing more for me. I was out of there.

"What's a school going to do with a student like me?"

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