During the last school year, nearly 8,000 Massachusetts high school students dropped out. As with any pervasive challenge, the reasons are not always clear: some students left school to pursue work; others indicated they would transfer to another school, but never did. But for the majority of these children, we really do not know why they dropped out or where they ended up.
According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), though males and minority students have higher drop-out rates, this problem runs across gender, race and ethnicity lines – and even across grade levels. Over 2,000 (26%) of the students who dropped out last year were ninth graders.
It is true that our drop-out rate in Massachusetts has declined in recent years, and that’s in no small part due to the heroic efforts of so many parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, and community leaders. But the number is still too high.
This month the Joint Committee on Education favorably reported legislation that will provide more tools to our schools, communities, and families to empower all students to graduate. A major provision of the bill would raise the mandatory school attendance age to 18. The current age is 16, and the change to 18 would be implemented in phases over the next two school years.
Of course, raising the attendance age is not enough. Importantly, the bill also aims to increase parental involvement and provide more real time information to families. It would require school districts to adopt an absence notification policy to parents/guardians in the event of multiple, unexcused absences and to offer (at least) yearly workshops on effective strategies for parental engagement in the education of at-risk students.
This legislation also would provide new tools for gathering and reporting data from school districts to identify early warning signs for students at-risk of dropping out. And, it modifies the regulations governing suspensions and expulsions, and requires school districts to offer alternative educational services to certain students who are expelled or suspended for more than 10 days.
Finally, this bill would establish a program enabling high schools with a drop-out rate of 10% or more to hire a graduation coach, funded by the Commonwealth, to engage at-risk students and their families, connect them with resources and identify opportunities for educational support, motivate students to focus on a graduation plan, and assist with reenrollment of students.
While this bill is an important first step, it is just one piece of a complex solution. Working together as parents, teachers, school leaders and government officials, we can give all our students the opportunities they deserve to learn, graduate and succeed.