Local superintendents generally supportive of raising dropout age
By and large, the leaders of Whitley County’s three school districts say they embrace a soon-to-be-law that would give them the option to increase the dropout age from 16 to 18.
The bill passed both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly last week and is awaiting Gov. Steve Beshear’s signature. He has said he supports the proposal and plans to sign it.
Initially, the legislation proposed to make the move mandatory on all school districts. However, after negotiations, legislators agreed to make the move optional for school districts up to a point. Once 55 percent of the state’s district adopts the new policy, then it would become mandatory for everyone.
Williamsburg Independent School District Superintendent Denny Byrd gave unqualified support to the proposal and said he plans in the near future to recommend to his district’s Board of Education they make the change.
“In the long run, I think it’s really going to benefit the students,” Byrd said. “I know many times money is an issue, but when it comes down to it our hearts should be about educating the students and having them prepared for life … I just think there’s very few people that would be ready to take on the world at 16.”
For districts like Williamsburg, the problem isn’t really a front burner issue. Byrd notes that the dropout rate at Williamsburg is very low … almost non-existent.
“We are talking about one dropout a year, maybe. Most of the time it’s zero,” Byrd said.
Corbin Schools Superintendent Ed McNeel said the problem of dropouts in Corbin isn’t really a pressing issue either. Though large for a city-centered, independent district, its dropout rate is miniscule. But unlike Byrd, he’s generally ambivalent about the prospects of increasing the dropout age at Corbin.
“Just demanding it to happen will not be enough to effectively impact many student needs,” McNeel said. “You need to provide programs to help students that need it. Not all teenagers fit the same mold. There needs to be different programs and tracts they can take to receive a diploma. I think sometimes that part of it is left out.”
McNeel notes that at Corbin, the district already offers a bevy of programs to assist students in danger of dropping out or falling behind: KAPA, Even Start, an alternative school setting and extended school services. Similar programs are offered at Williamsburg. He also notes that state funding to school districts for students is locked into 2007 levels, while state funding for textbooks, professional development, afterschool programs and other state and federal grants have been totally stripped or reduced.
“You add all that up and its going to put a burden on many districts to provide programs to make sure every child gets a high school education,” McNeel said. “There’s different ways of getting them there instead of just requiring them to get there.”
McNeel made clear, though, that he’s not necessarily opposed to the idea and that ultimately it would be up to the school district’s Board of Education about whether or not it is adopted.
“It will be a topic that is definitely discussed.”
Scott Paul, Superintendent at the Whitley County School District, said Tuesday he plans to recommend to the school system’s Board of Education to increase the dropout age once the bill is signed into law and takes effect.
“I think it will be something most districts will do,” he said. “It really just boils down to the fact that if you can keep the kids in school longer, they have more of a chance to succeed. We feel like the longer we have them, the more opportunities we have to encourage them.”
Whitley County is the county’s largest school district, by far, and is typically harder hit by dropout problems. In most recent accountability assessments, an average of 72.8 percent seniors that started out at Whitley County High School as freshmen and sophomores graduated. While not truly a dropout rate (many of the students move to other districts or leave to be home schooled, and don’t truly dropout) the percentage is higher than its city counterparts.
Paul said he agrees with McNeel that some close examination would have to be done to determine if all the programs needed are being offered to make sure students find a path to a diploma that suits their individual situations.
“I would imagine it would impact our alternative school to some extent. We may have to look at the possibility of expanding that some,” Paul said. “I would imagine there would be other avenues that would spring up also as a result of this new law.”
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