More States Raise Dropout Age to 18

A growing number of states are raising the high-school dropout age to 18. Supporters say the new laws will reduce the dropout rate. But some educators fear the measures will be ineffective, while costing the schools more money.

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Once students get a little older, states are trying to keep them in high school longer. South Dakota recently raised its dropout age to 18. It's the 19th state to do that. But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some educators say just keeping teenagers in school does not guarantee they'll learn anything.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Wade Pogany of the South Dakota Department of Education says that when he was a principal he used to ask kids why they'd dropped out of high school.

Mr. WADE POGANY (South Dakota Department of Education): And the number one reason why students leave at 16 is that they can. We allow them to do that. And that's not acceptable.

ABRAMSON: Pogany was speaking at a hearing in February on a proposal to raise the mandatory school attendance age to 18. The governor signed the bill into law last week. It won't take effect for two years. Supporters say they want to put some pressure both on students and educators so they'll all try harder to avoid a decision that can be very expensive.

Colorado just changed its mandatory attendance age to 17, effective September 1st. Jill Martin is principal of Thomas B. Doherty High School in Colorado Springs. She says she's not sure why they did it.

Ms. JILL MARTIN (Principal, Thomas B. Doherty High School): For all of us the stakes are really high. We're not shoving these kids out the door. Quite the contrary.

ABRAMSON: Martin notes that the federal No Child Left Behind law already requires that schools graduate a certain percentage of students. Schools that ignore dropouts risk being labeled as failing. Jill Martin says that turning this problem into a criminal matter will just eat up resources.

Ms. MARTIN: The biggest problem is that we're going to be spending money taking kids to truancy court that we could be using to provide more interventions for them, more motivating programs for them. And that's what I find discouraging.

ABRAMSON: Martin says she hasn't gotten any extra money to deal with a larger population of dropouts. Other educators agree that forcing kids to go to school doesn't solve the problem. David Canavan runs the Alternative Center for Excellence in Danbury, Connecticut, where the mandatory attendance age changed to 18 in 2001. Canavan says you have to figure out what's wrong in students' lives, what's keeping them from succeeding in school.

Mr. DAVID CANAVAN (Principal, Alternative Center for Excellence): So we put in some energy into trying to figure out what's wrong. What are the personality factors that are getting in the way or what are the family factors that are slowing you down from the normal progression that most kids are making.

ABRAMSON: Talk to students who have dropped out and it's striking just how individual their circumstances are and how hard it is to fix what's broken. Jessica Hammond(ph), a 20-year-old from Pendleton, South Carolina, says she ran off with her boyfriend when she turned 17. She says she might have thought twice if she knew she risked breaking the law.

Ms. JESSICA HAMMOND: Probably because I wouldn't have wanted to get in trouble.

ABRAMSON: Now Hammond is enrolled in the Gateway to College program at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton. She said the dedication of the people in this program got her back into school again, working toward her goal of becoming a veterinarian. They taught her to believe that it matters whether she graduates.

Ms. HAMMOND: My family has always told me that I would never be anything or never amount to nothing, so I guess I kind of thought that myself.

ABRAMSON: Whether it's effective or not, raising the mandatory attendance age may be an unstoppable trend. Supporters say they need to send a message that a high school diploma is required for survival in American society.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: On a Tuesday morning you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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