Schools try to round up dropouts

If you dropped out of high school over the past two years but aren’t yet 18 years old, expect a phone call.

On the other end of the line will be an official from your local school district informing you that state law now requires you to come back to school.

With the increase in the state’s minimum dropout age from 16 to 18 going into effect July 1, school districts are trying to track down students who may have dropped out legally before this summer, but are now considered truant.

In June, Nashua sent out letters to all 32 students who have dropped out over the past two years, but aren’t yet 18.

Gov. John Lynch pushed hard for passage of the bill, often citing statistics saying high school dropouts were more likely to end up unemployed or imprisoned. The law was passed in 2007 and went into effect July 1.

Because of the way the law is written, many students who dropped out legally are now in violation of the law, said Paul Leather, director of the state Department of Education’s Division of Adult Learning.

“There’s not a grandfathering clause in this bill, so any student who is not 18 and has not yet graduated or completed a GED needs to be made aware that school attendance is required,” Leather said.

Critics of the change argued that forcing students to stay in school until they are 18 would overburden schools with students who don’t want to be there, taking away resources from those who do.

Michelle Papanicolau, director of adult education for Nashua, said the district has started to hear back from some of the students and found out that some had already started finishing their education.

Three students have completed their GEDs, two students are enrolled in adult education and another is back in high school, she said.

“One of the GED completers is currently interviewing at colleges and looking to enroll in the fall,” she said.

Starting last year, the state no longer counts students who complete a GED to be dropouts.

Papanicolau found another student moved to another district, but that leaves 25 students the district needs to locate and get back in school.

Papanicolau said it would be ideal for the students who need to return to the traditional high school setting, although the district offers several alternative programs where they could earn a diploma or GED.

Students can take classes in the adult education program or after school to make up the credits they need to graduate, she said. Some students might also be eligible to earn their GEDs, she said.

Papanicolau stressed that those classes maintain high academic integrity. There is an attendance requirement, where students automatically fail if they miss a certain number of days, she said.

Brian Cochrane, director of assessment and accountability for Nashua, said the continuing education options are about creating pathways that are best suited for dropouts to come back and complete school.

“What works well for one student may not work for another student,” he said. “For some students, a GED may be the only viable option.”

Nashua sent out letters to students on June 20 informing them of the change to the law. The letters were addressed to the students’ parents. Papanicolau said they have followed up with phone calls, as well.

Although the hope is that all of the students will decide to come back to school, Papanicolau said she is a realist and knows there will be students who choose not to.

“There are students that no matter how many pathways you create, they won’t come back,” she said.

School officials in Milford are also working on tracking down two students. Paul Christensen, director of student services, said the district is still in the process of sending out letters and making phone calls.

The first priority is to get the students back in the traditional high school setting, he said.

“We place the highest value on the Milford High School diploma,” he said.

Like Nashua, the district is offering up alternatives, like credit recovery, summer school and a school-run GED program, to try to make it as convenient as possible for students to finish, while still maintaining high standards.

But even after the dropouts are tracked down this summer, districts are left with the task of finding a way to educate and engage students who once could have dropped out but now cannot.

“Part of the trick here is to make education relevant and meaningful in these young people’s lives,” he said.

Over the past few years, districts have been encouraging students who were considering dropping out to make use of the alternative programs to finish their diplomas or get a GED.

Nashua received a $421,343 dropout prevention grant from the state in early 2008, which has been used to fund two dropout prevention coordinators, one for each high school, as well as pay teachers to teach credit recovery classes.

That grant runs out this summer, but Papanicolau said the district has received verbal confirmation that it will receive a two-year extension, which will keep those initiatives funded.

Laurie Johnson, assistant superintendent in Milford, said the district is using a combination of federal and local funding to pay for its dropout prevention programs.