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Massachusetts considers raising school dropout age

Published: Thursday, April 5, 2012

Updated: Thursday, April 5, 2012 17:04

The Massachusetts legislature is considering legislation that would increase the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18 in an effort to reduce the state’s dropout rate.

“The purpose of the bill is to reduce the dropout rate in the Commonwealth and to provide a vehicle for students who have dropped out to be able to go back to school,” State Representative Alice Peisch (D−Wellesley) told the Daily.

The bill recently passed out of the Joint Committee on Education and is currently being discussed in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The change would work in two phases. The bill would raise the state’s minimum high school dropout age first to 17 in the 2013−2014 academic year and then to 18 in the 2014−2015 academic year.

The law aims to reduce the dropout rate through specific initiatives, including targeting schools with the highest dropout rates, according to Peisch.

Schools would hire graduate coaches meant to work with students who are deemed to be at risk of dropping out.

“The way the law is written, school districts that have a dropout age of a set percent would be able to apply for funding from the [Massachusetts Department of Education] to fund a graduation coach,” she said.

According to statistical reports from the Massachusetts Department of Education, the dropout rate for both Somerville and Medford school districts was 3.6 percent for the 2010−2011 school year.

The dropout rate required in the current legislation is around 10 percent, and thus Somerville High School would be ineligible to apply for funding for a graduation coach, according to Peisch.

The legislation would still impact these local school districts, according to Vincent McKay, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment of the Somerville Public Schools.

“We have a very transient population, so having a mandatory age of attendance increase from 16 to 18, there will be a greater need for staff at schools to monitor students,” McKay told the Daily. “Our attendance rate will go down and our truancy rate will increase.”

McKay said, though, that he supports the bill and sees ways to combat these potential problems.

“We would have to diversify program opportunities, and we would have to be more flexible in the times of day that we meet the needs of these students because their lives become more complicated,” he said. “To succeed in today’s world and in this economy, a high school diploma and even a two−year college degree is essential for them to have the skills necessary to succeed.”

Staff increases and changes to school schedules would require additional financial resources, and McKay worries about what funding the state would provide.

“It would join a long list of unfunded mandates from the state, and we will have to use existing resources,” he said.

However, the likelihood of the entire bill’s passing without funding is slim, according to Peisch.

“I would be surprised if it gets reported out in full without some financial support in the budget,” she said. “If the bill were to be passed, there are definitely expenses associated with it. If we don’t provide for the funding within the budget, it is going to require both the [Massachusetts Department of Education] and local school districts to take money from somewhere else, which is certainly not the intent.”

Given the state of the economy, finding supplementary money in the budget may be difficult, and Peisch described it as an “uphill battle.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s a very challenging year to try to get in any significant addition that is not already there,” she said.

“Maybe different pieces would be reported out favorably because not every aspect of it requires funding,” she added. “I cannot imagine the age going up without there being some funding associated with it.”

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