Araba Adoboe, a 17-year-old from Amherst, speaks at a State House press conference March 8 about why she dropped out of high school. State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (2nd from left) is the lead sponsor of a bill aimed at reducing the school dropout rate. (Sandra Larson photo)
The Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Education voted favorably last week on a bill to reduce the school dropout rate in Massachusetts with a variety of prevention and recovery measures.
Senate Bill 185, “An Act Relative to Dropout Prevention and Recovery,” raises the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18. In addition, it includes measures to identify dropout risk early, prevent students from quitting school and bring them back into the system quickly if they do drop out.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), the senate chair of the Education Committee and lead sponsor of the bill, held a press conference at the State House following last week’s vote.
“Massachusetts is the birthplace of public education,” she said. “We know how to do things right. But we are not reaching every student. The best way to keep students on track is a comprehensive plan to get at the root causes of dropout.”
Each year, some 8,000 Massachusetts high school students drop out, according to reports from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). While the annual dropout rate has actually declined over the past several years, from 3.8 percent in 2006-07 to 2.7 percent in 2010-11, Hispanic and black students continue to top the chart for dropout rates among individual racial and ethnic categories.
In Boston, the annual dropout number has been around 1,200 in recent years, down from 1,800 in 2004, said Kathy Hamilton, youth transitions director at the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC).
The PIC’s Youth Transitions Task Force was convened in 2004 by Mayor Thomas Menino to study and remediate the city’s dropout rate. Hamilton attributed the decrease in dropouts to improved outreach and early intervention, better use of data, provision of alternative pathways to a diploma and a collaborative approach among schools and agencies.
Under the state bill, a new network of graduation coaches would connect at-risk students in grades 7-12 with academic support and community resources, and assist recent dropouts in returning to school. Alternative education services would be provided to expelled or suspended students, and schools would hold workshops each year for parents on effective strategies for engaging their at-risk children.
Araba Adoboe, 17, from Amherst, spoke about how she dropped out of high school after becoming ill with mononucleosis and falling behind in her sophomore year.
“If Senate Bill 185 had been in place then, things would have been different,” Adoboe said. “If I had a graduation coach, maybe I could have received tutoring, or changed schools. Maybe someone would have returned our phone calls.”
The bill also requires districts to report data on students in grades K-12 as part of the Early Warning Indicator System currently under development by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
Dr. Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, provided stark statistics on the financial toll high school dropout takes on both the student and on the economy.
According to Sum, male high school dropouts will have lifetime earnings of $600,000 less than high school graduates; for female dropouts, the difference is $400,000. Over their lifetime, from ages 18 to 74, high school dropouts will pay half a million dollars less in taxes, on average, and will require more in government expenditures than high school graduates.
“So it’s less income for them and more cost to the rest of us,” he said.
Responding to questions about the bill’s funding, Chang-Diaz explained that the cost of the graduation coach program will be borne by the state, not cities; and funds already in place for standard and alternative education could be tapped for the costs of additional students staying in school or receiving alternative services during long term suspension, she said.
She cited the high return on investment for a bill that could help would-be dropouts become productive members of the labor force and stay out of jail. High school dropouts make up 70 percent of the state’s jail and prison population, she noted, at an average cost of $46,000 per inmate per year — while a year of public education costs about $11,000.
“I want to push back on the notion that this is a net cost bill,” she said.
Regarding the change in mandatory attendance age, it would be phased in, she said, moving from 16 to 17 in fall of 2013, and to 18 in fall 2014.
“There has been a debate [over the years] about how effective it is to raise the age if you’re not going to do the other supports around it,” Chang-Diaz added — but she said this bill contains the proper measures to make it work. “We’re not just going to say, ‘Your bottoms have to be in the chairs for two more years, but we’re not going to change anything about your level of engagement.’ ”
The bill now goes to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means for a cost analysis.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson volunteered last week for a bit of schooling. Her "teachers" were four elders of the black community who have been engaged with the school system for a half century.
In the informal seminar at UMass Boston, retired businessman Kenneth Guscott, former state Rep. Doris Bunte, educator-activist Hubie Jones and educator Jean McGuire talked about what has changed about the schools, what remains the same and new challenges that have emerged.
Earlier this week, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the American Heart Association and 10 Boston-area hospitals announced a new effort to reduce the consumption of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages in the city.
Under the leadership of the Boston Public Health Commission, hospitals have pledged to remove high-sugar beverages from their premises and replace them with more nutritious options; install free water dispensers; display red, yellow and green stoplight symbols on beverages to indicate their nutrition value; and educate patients and staff about healthy beverage choices.
"I have been concerned for years about the impact of obesity and especially about children and youth drinking sugary beverages like soda, sports drinks and energy drinks," Menino said in a statement. "My vision is to make the city of Boston a model for making the healthy choice the easy choice. I commend these ten hospitals and the Public Health Commission for their leadership and for taking on the challenge of creating healthier environments for patients, staff and visitors."
The Boston School Committee (BSC) received a proposal last month that included the relocation of two Boston high schools, the opening of two new elementary, in-district charter school and the expansion of seats at the Eliot Elementary School in the North End.
In Boston Public Schools (BPS) Superintendent Carol Johnson's "School Facilities Changes" proposal Boston Latin Academy (BLA) will relocate from its Townsend Street building in Dorchester to the Hyde Park Education Complex. The Hyde Park facility that housed the Engineering High School, Social Justice Academy and the Community Academy for Science and Health (CASH) was closed a month ago.