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    News > In the Headlines


    School dropout age rising to 17

    8/10/2004

    By Gregory R. Norfleet

    Mt. Vernon Register-News


    MT. VERNON - You're 16, you've got a driver's license and you want to drop out of school and get a job.

    Forget it.

    A new law requires teen-agers to stay in school for another year by raising the dropout age to 17.

    The governor signed the law Tuesday, and local superintendents say it is for the students' own good.

    And if students feel like skipping school instead, the law also has a provision that covers that: Now parents can be hauled before a judge faster to get on their child's case.

    The law does not take effect until Jan. 1, but Gil Bernard, superintendent at Waltonville Unit Schools, said he likes the "leverage" the new law give schools.

    "It will keep those kids in school until they are within a year of graduating," he said.

    Webber Township High School Superintendent Dale Colwell agrees.
    "If they see the light at the end of the tunnel, they might stick it out," he said.

    Circuit Judge George Timberlake, a vocal child advocate, had been following the bill and was pleased it became law.

    Timberlake said it is "counterlogical" to think that a 16-year-old without a high school diploma could be mature enough to make the right decision about dropping out of school.

    Mark Zahm, principal at Woodlawn High School, said the new law will probably not affect his students much, as only three or four drop out each year.

    "Usually, they don't just walk in and say 'I want to drop out,'" he said.

    The school tries to work with the student and their parents, said Zahm. Sometimes they drop out anyway but then learn the reality of life outside school.

    "Believe it or not, some of them come back," said Zahm.

    Bernard said students typically drop out because they would rather get a job - commonly to pay for a car - or they simply get tired of school.

    "I'd like to see (the compulsory school age) at 18 or until they graduate," said Bernard, also a father of three, adding that children do not tend to look past short-term needs.

    In the new truancy law, students who have been reported to a truant officer three times must perform 20 to 40 hours of community service.
    If they continue to skip school, a truant officer may file a complaint with the state's attorney's office or conduct a "truancy mediation" and try to get students enrolled in programs that encourage them to graduate.

    "That puts a little teeth into this," said Bernard.

    Timberlake said the truancy mediation option is a better choice.

    "Shaking your finger at someone and saying 'You're bad' doesn't get us anywhere," the judge said.

    But Timberlake points out that Jefferson County's Truancy Review Board already does a lot to alleviate chronic truancy.

    "The state's just caught up with us," he said.

    To punish first and then try to help the student is "backward," said Timberlake.

    Terry Milt, superintendent at Mt. Vernon Township High School, said he likes the intent of the law but was skeptical that local agencies would have the resources to fully implement it.

    "Who's going to make them do it?" he asked. "It sounds great, but how is it truly going to be administered?"

    In the past, schools have been able to file complaints against parents or guardians about truants, but only if they could show a "repeated pattern."

    Colwell said it is good to find a way to get parents involved.
    "That will get their attention," he said. "We've got to do all we can to keep these kids in school and get them to graduate."

    Zahm said that with the Serious Habitual Offender Comprehensive Action Program and other such action plans, agencies already do a lot to keep at-risk children in school.

    "Jefferson County is definitely a leader in that," he said.
    Milt said he would like to see how the truancy law works, but appreciates the help.

    "Keeping students in school is never a bad idea," said Milt.

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