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Can raising mandatory school attendance age shrink Delaware’s dropout rate?

State Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte, Claymont, Edgemoor) wanted to address the dropout problem in state high schools. Raising the age for mandatory school attendance to 18 from 16 seemed like the way to go, so she drafted the legislation over the summer. The bill was introduced in Dover January 12 without much fanfare.

Less than two weeks later, Pres. Barack Obama made the State of the Union address and brought more attention to Heffernan’s bill than she ever expected.

“We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” Obama said. “When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

Heffernan’s bill was scheduled for consideration in the House Education Committee, but after some discussion, the former president of the Brandywine School District suggested the bill be tabled.

“I think it’s great to have this discussion (on the legislation), especially on the national level,” Heffernan said. “I requested to have it tabled so we can work on resolving questions. It will probably come back after the JFC (Joint Finance Committee) break (in March).”

She said she didn’t know Obama would mention the mandatory attendance issue during the State of the Union, but she was certainly excited that he did.

In its latest report, the Delaware Department of Education said that during the 2010-2011 academic year, 3.7 percent of the state’s high school population, 1,442 students, dropped out. Though that number has diminished over the last three years, administrators are still working to shrink those numbers even farther.

“Four years ago we had two of our high schools that were considered dropout factories, unfortunately — Dickinson and McKean,” said Burtie Watson, director of district and school services for Red Clay Consolidated School District. “We took a direct approach to try to reduce dropouts also looking at prevention and recovery efforts.” In three years the district’s dropout numbers have decreased by 20 percent.

Watson said he treats dropout risk systemically, starting in kindergarten. Heffernan’s proposed legislation would be another weapon in his arsenal.

“I think (the age for mandatory school attendance) should be raised to 18,” Watson said. “I think what we’re creating without that as a law is an underclass of kids who don’t graduate with a diploma. Aside from that, it gives us more time to work with kids providing them the things that they need to be successful at age 15, 16, 17.”

Mandatory school attendance age and Delaware’s dropout rate.

Red Clay Consolidated School Dist. superintendent Mervin Daugherty and Red Clay director of district and school services Burtie Watson

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Can raising mandatory school attendance age shrink Delawares dropout rate?

Watson said the change may lead to an increase in truancy numbers, but he would rather work on those numbers than continue to fight dropout rates. However, Sherry Gross, principal at Glasgow High School, said she doesn’t think opening more students up to truancy charges would be helpful.

“To be perfectly honest with you, the truancy court system, my personal feeling has been, it does not change the student’s practice of coming to school,” Gross said. “The staff and the school make the student want to come to school. Changing (the mandatory attendance age) will not only bog down the truancy system itself, it will not change the behavior of not coming to school.

“Attaching a student to someone in the building and making that building a better place for the student to be in is what changes the behavior.”

Gross said she believes improving the school, not passing legislation, will get students to stay until graduation.

Legislators and educators agree that the pending legislation needs to address alternatives offered to kids who don’t succeed at the traditional school level. For example, under current dropout reporting, students who leave traditional school to enter Job Corps, a GED program, or James H. Grove Adult High School, are counted as dropouts, even if teens complete their education or gain skills to succeed in the workplace.

Looking at the numbers, most students drop out of school in their freshman year. Many of those, officials say, are already 16 years old after having repeating a grade in elementary school. There can be a level of frustration or embarrassment in prior failures that lead to dropping out of school instead of risking more failure. Having a spectrum of alternatives for students could encourage them to follow through with completing their education.

“I’m hoping they allow for flexibility to come up with a plan (for students),” said Mervin Daugherty, superintendent of Red Clay Consolidated School District. “I’m not asking for more money. Just give us the flexibility to work with a student to come up with an alternative plan. If you’re going for your GED, why are they still counted as a dropout?

“I think we’re in a very unique opportunity for education, let’s look at every avenue. I think everyone is looking at data differently now. It’s not I need to be at this point here, it’s where did I grow? How do we help them get caught up? How do we help them succeed?”

Also, there’s the price tag of keeping students in school as many as two years longer than they may stay according to the current law. The fiscal notes on the legislation suggesting extending the mandatory school attendance age could cost more than $2 million by 2013, giving some legislators pause.

“There was some discussion about the fiscal implications,” Heffernan said. “My thoughts—and those of other supporters—up-front costs are much smaller than long-term costs. There’s the possibility of those dropouts ending up on welfare, Medicaid or in the legal system.”

“What happens if we keep going the path we’re headed? We’re going to keep the (current dropout) numbers and I think the resources are going to be even more expensive,” Daugherty said. “Are we saying that those students who don’t want to be in that traditional school should stay in school? No, but there should be an avenue of success for them. If not, we’re going to pay for it in multiple ways down the road that are not going to be good for our society.”