Don’t quit on dropouts

The Boston Globe
September 24, 2011

By Adrian Walker

All of a sudden, dropout prevention is a hot topic, and not a moment too soon.

A hearing at the State House on Tuesday will examine whether 16 year-olds should be able to make the decision to drop out of school. This spring, Boston City Councilors Tito Jackson and John Connolly sponsored a home-rule petition that would force students to stay in school until they are 18.

“We won’t let them drink or smoke or vote at 16,’’ Jackson said. “But we let them drop out of life at 16. This is about doing what’s best, what’s right, and what’s responsible for our kids.’’

The state legislation, proposed by Representative Martha Walz, a Back Bay Democrat, is far more comprehensive. It calls for raising the dropout age gradually to allow school districts to develop strategies for teaching kids who have given up on traditional classrooms.

“Decades ago, it had far different connotations than it does today,’’ Walz said. “You’re not going to go work on a farm in most areas of our state. You’re not going to go into a low-skilled manufacturing job in most areas of our state.’’

In fact, mounting evidence says dropouts are far more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, or end up incarcerated than their peers who graduate from high school.

A study in 2009 by Northeastern’s Center for Labor Market Studies put the average income of high school dropouts at less than $9,000 a year. Jackson says that comes with a heavy price tag for taxpayers, when some of those dropouts stray.

“We spend a $11,000 a year to educate a student but $46,000 for incarceration,’’ he said.

Jackson and Connolly joined forces when they discovered that they were both, independently, concerned about the same issue, which is drawing increased attention. New Hampshire has already raised its dropout age, resulting in far more students graduating from high school.

While the dropout rate is an issue statewide, it resonates in Boston, where the graduation rate is 63 percent and where even those who do graduate – exam school graduates excluded – struggle to advance in college. Connolly, a former teacher who said he visits at least one school a week, said he is struck by how early some students begin pondering dropping out – long before they are mature enough to understand the decision’s implication.

“I talk to teachers who says they see kids at 12 who are already planning to drop out at 16,’’ Connolly said. “These are totally disengaged kids who begin skipping school a ton. In a lot of cases a teacher will go an extra mile to pull that kid back into school.’’

Clearly, keeping students in school is not the only issue. Walz said school districts must do much better at understanding why kids drop out, in order to design programs that will benefit them. This is more complicated than just telling kids they must stay in school.

“Nationally, one-third of the girls who drop out are pregnant or raising children,’’ Walz said. “Another chunk of the population are non-English speakers. It’s hard to [pass] chemistry if you can’t speak English. When you start peeling back and looking at who is dropping out, you see patterns.’’

One positive effect of the charter school movement has been to expand options for students and to encourage more innovative approaches to education. Those will be needed to reach the substantial number of kids who are ready to opt out.

“Just keeping them in school for two more years is not productive,’’ Walz said.

Lawmakers deserve credit for forgetting the casino debate long enough to focus on this complex issue. Figuring out how to support kids who are ready to give up on school would be a huge achievement.

“You’re not guaranteed anything with a diploma or a degree,’’ Jackson said. “But you’re guaranteed a lot of misery without one.’’

This column originally appeared here.

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