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SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2007
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Alabama should raise compulsory school-attendance age

By David Nichols

Alabama’s schools are showing signs of sustained academic progress. But we have a long road ahead in meeting the standards children should achieve to be prepared for college and highly skilled work environments.

Despite this bit of good news, Gov. Bob Riley, state legislators and state School Superintendent Joe Morton must create a shared, bi-partisan vision and have the courage to effect real school reform. They must raise Alabama’s compulsory school-attendance age. Otherwise, we will continue to leave the door wide open for thousands of youngsters and their parents to make a decision, which may be irrevocable, with a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Research shows that almost one in three of our nation’s public-school students drop out before receiving a diploma and one-half of African-Americans and Hispanics are dropout casualties. A report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts” by Civic Enterprises, recommends raising the compulsory attendance age — along with additional measures — to rescue struggling students. Alabama and other states currently have a myriad of statutes and strategies aimed at reducing the dropout rate, thus increasing the graduation rate. This fall, selected Alabama schools will implement programs for keeping at-risk students in school: “The Dropout Prevention Advisor Program” and the “Preparing Alabama for Success Initiative.” Yet, more funding and new programs have had little influence in persuading many students from leaving school at that “magic date” — their 16th birthday. In 2006, the most recent available data, Alabama experienced more than 5,000 dropouts in grades nine through 12. More than half, 51 percent, left in the ninth and 10th grades.

We know that dropouts’ annual earnings are several hundred thousand dollars less than high school graduates. We know that unemployment is 65 percent higher for high school dropouts. We know that high school dropouts end up committing a disproportionate percentage of street crime and, consequently, pack our prisons and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

There is no single reason students drop out of school. Respondents to surveys report boring classes, peer influence, parental apathy, poor attendance and lack of caring. The lack of academic preparation in the early grades, especially in reading, is a frequent response.

At present, 24 states have increased their compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17 or 18. Research studies indicate that, while increasing the compulsory age alone does not eliminate high school dropouts, when supported by additional initiatives and strategies, the results are positive and, on average, students stay in school longer. The age of 16 has been the standard for more than 100 years — dating back to when our society was agrarian, when the automobile was a rarity and when a high school diploma was not essential to land a good job.

Times have changed. Increasing the age above 16 will diminish the anticipation to quit at 16, giving them time to not make the decision many dropouts say they later regret.

The Washington D.C.-based Alliance for Education organization points to several positive economic indicators that might result if Alabama reduced the number of dropouts and increased the graduation rate. The Alliance cites increases in the state’s economy in terms of savings in health care costs, saving millions in crime-related spending and increased wealth to the state’s economy by nearly $1 billion if current dropouts who head households had high school diplomas.

The fact is that 16- and 17-year-olds are not adults. A 2005 study conducted by the Juvenile Rights Project Inc. says: “One myth is that teens are old enough and capable of taking care of themselves. In fact, the opposite is true. Recent brain development research now tells us that, while many teens have adult characteristics, their brains do not keep up with the rest of their development ...”

We must make it difficult for students to drop out of school when they are least capable of making such life-changing decisions.

Some states have increased the age over 16 for eligibility for a driver license. Alabama’s annual auto-crash statistics reveal 16- and 17-year-old drivers make up the single highest age group involved. Alabama does restrict the issuance of driver licenses for dropouts, but needs fewer exceptions and expanded enforcement.

The next legislative session opens Feb. 5. This will be the right time for our state policymakers to come together with a bi-partisan commitment and take a bold step in school reform. This will be an opportunity to save more of our children who, heretofore, we have left behind. Now is the time for Alabama to increase the compulsory school-attendance age. It would be a travesty to wait until we have to say “thank God for Mississippi.”

David Nichols, Ed. D., is a member of the Shelby County Board of Education, a former teacher and education administrator and a consultant to schools and universities. E-mail Drchief1@aol.com

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