WASHINGTON — During his junior year in high school, Manny Galvez dropped out in order to get a job and help his sick mother pay the rent. Galvez also wanted to avoid the final presentation required of each student at the end of the semester.
“I wasn’t good at that because I was shy, I was scared to present in front of the teachers,” Galvez said. “…The work was too hard, it was getting complicated…So I was like man, I have to do what I have to do because I have to help my family.”
In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address this year, he asked states to keep students in high school until the age of 18, or when they graduate. Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have compulsory school attendance until age 18.
“When students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” Obama said. “When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.”
Although the president’s call to action was met with applause in January, some education experts argue that raising the maximum compulsory school age, the age at which students no longer need to be enrolled, will not by itself solve the nation’s dropout crisis.
State of the matter
According to a March 2011 study by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, America’s Promise Alliance, the Alliance for Excellent Education and public policy consulting firm Civic Enterprises, the United States has 1,634 “dropout factories,” high schools that graduate 60 percent or fewer of their students. More than 2 million students attend the schools.
About 1.2 million students drop out each year, according to Obama’s 2012 education blueprint.
In a 2006 study, Civic Enterprises CEO John Bridgeland found that having the compulsory school age set low for students can result in low expectations.
The compulsory school age laws that permit students to drop out before the age of 18 are the relics of a bygone era, often dating back more than a hundred years, according to John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions. Students in earlier times were able to leave school and work in factories and farms.
But today’s dropouts face an economy where most jobs require employees to have some level of a college education, Bridgeland said.
According to the Department of Education, five state legislatures last year considered raising the compulsory school age to 18, but only one, Rhode Island, did so.
State Sen. Lou DiPalma, D-R.I., a member of the education committee in Providence who sponsored the state’s legislation, said that raising the compulsory school age is a necessary investment, disputing critics who say adding more students to the classroom will raise costs and disrupt other students.
“If you don’t graduate from high school, typically, you’re going to cost society more than you would’ve contributed to society,” DiPalma said.
By keeping more kids in school, DiPalma added, the state will be able to save money in the corrections and incarceration department.
Like Rhode Island, Delaware has contemplated raising its compulsory school age from 16 to 18. However, in January, the House education committee tabled the legislation.
Damon Saunders, student adviser in charge of the dropout prevention program at Delaware’s John Dickinson High School, warned that if the compulsory school age is increased to 18, schools run the risk of keeping kids who don’t want to attend school, which could increase truancy cases. In addition, having the presence of older kids who do not care about school could also affect the development of younger students, he said.
“I don’t know what you can do to make kids understand the necessity of having at least the equivalent of a high school diploma,” Saunders said. “I mean, kids say that school’s not fun, and I don’t know what the answer to that is.”
The underlying problems
Problems like convincing students that school is a necessary tool for their economic security are among the reasons why many education experts claim that raising the compulsory school age alone will not reduce the number of dropouts.
“I was delighted that he (Obama) gave such attention to the dropout crisis…simply making that statement called attention to it, and that’s the first step towards dealing with it,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group pushing for all students to graduate high school. “But you can’t stop there. It’s one thing to declare that students will have to be in school until a certain age; it’s something else to make sure you’re giving them something worth going to school for.”
For Wise, raising the graduation rate instead of the compulsory school age is what really matters. He said some successful strategies that help kids stay in school include the creation of theme academies where students learn skills related to the careers they want to pursue.
Eric Lerum, vice president for national policy at Studentsfirst, an organization dedicated to education reform headed by former Washington Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, said teacher effectiveness is a key to keeping kids in school, and that teachers must learn how to differentiate instruction in order to meet the individual learning needs of students.
He also said states must develop new avenues of learning, like specialized charter schools and online learning, to reach students who do not learn through the traditional model of education.
“The best way you encourage kids not to drop out is to not give them reasons to,” Lerum said. “To not send them away, to not send them to a hopelessly failing school, day after day, year after year.”
Some argue problems that originate outside the classroom also are a factor in the decision to drop out.
WhyTry, a program dedicated to addressing the social and emotional issues related to dropping out, tackles three main issues: improving relationships between teachers and students, helping students realize the relevance of going to school and providing children with the tools to face life challenges like dysfunctional home lives.
“It’s like they’re standing in front of a wall and all they can see on that wall is the problems they’re dealing with at home, at school, with their peers, and they just can’t see beyond that,” said Hans Magleby, the co-founder and CEO of WhyTry. “For us, we know we can’t get rid of all those problems that are on the wall…we’ll try and get them up on top of that wall where they can see down the road to their future.”
A future for dropouts
In his proposed federal budget for 2013, Obama included multiple programs and funding sources to try to increase graduation rates and solve the drop-out problem. Among them are College Pathways and Accelerated Learning, which would offer college-level courses to schools with large numbers of students from low-income families, and support for early warning data systems to spot students at risk of dropping out and provide them extra assistance.
States also have begun initiatives to transform their graduation rates. Colorado has created a statewide office of dropout prevention while Michigan’s superintendent has urged schools to accept his challenge to identify 10 to 15 students who exhibit dropout signs and provide them with support.
“This is a solvable problem,” Bridgeland said. “And it’s a matter of mobilizing the will and the people and the institutions to solve it.”
For Galvez, now 23, the solution was to attend Roosevelt S.T.A.Y., an alternative program in Washington that gives high school dropouts the opportunity to receive high school diplomas. Galvez is set to graduate from the program in June.
After being out of school for several years, he decided to try again after the birth of his daughter last year so that he can get a better career with an eventual goal of becoming a police officer.
“I decided that I want her to have a better future …,” Galvez said. “I just want to have a higher education…When she grows up, I don’t want her to go through what I went through.”