The Jefferson County Board of Education approved a new policy Monday night increasing the age at which students can drop out of school from 16- to 18-years-old, joining dozens of school districts statewide that have passed similar policies over the last two weeks.
“When you say it’s okay for students to drop out of school at 16, they think it’s okay to drop out at 16,” says JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens. “So in order to really send the message that we expect you to stay in school until 18 and we’re there to support you, it needs to be in writing that it’s 18.”
Under Senate Bill 97, which passed the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this year, school districts can voluntarily adopt the new compulsory dropout age and when 55 percent of districts approve the policy, all districts must follow within four years.
Hargens assured the district would be ready for the transition when the policy takes effect in the 2015-2016 school year and said becoming one of the state’s four Districts of Innovation–which allows local districts to be exempt from certain state regulations–will help.
“We think this will be a catalyst for doing things better for students and making things more relevant,” she says.
Hargens expects the JCPS District of Innovation plan to allow the community—including parents and students—to have a hand in designing the next JCPS magnet school, though she didn’t say whether that would include constructing a completely new building. Instead, the idea is to hold a school design contest where anyone can submit ideas and the best ones would be considered by the district.
“We know the things that work…when you engage students in project-based learning, when you give them the opportunity to do internships, when you do things in different ways,” Hargens says.
Under the new dropout policy, around 500 of the 1,166 students who dropped out in the 2011-2012 school year—which is the most recent data available—would have to continue in school or be pursued for truancy by the district, according to officials.
That leaves the question of where to put those students and what additional services might look like.
District 5’s Linda Duncan said there was no doubt the board would approve the policy Monday night, but she warned that the district needs to be prepared for the additional student load.
“I think it’s a good thing we have three years to work out a lot of the details of this,” she says. “It’s going to cost extra money to try and support these services as well as employ people to bring those kids back into school.”
Hargens says the district will consider the alternative programming already in place while JCPS develops its plan and will “see how many seats are available and see what we can do with our current structure and resources.”
Also beginning the 2015-2016 school year, the district will not count those under 18 as dropouts as it currently does, Hargens says. That will likely reduce the district’s overall dropout rate, which was most recently 4.1 percent, and will also make it harder to compare JCPS to other districts that do count younger students in their rates.
“That should be a revolutionary change,” Duncan says.
On Monday night, 18 school districts that had yet to approve the new dropout age held meetings, but it’s not yet known how many of those districts—other than JCPS—approved the policy.
The Kentucky Department of Education and Gov. Steve Beshear’s office have campaigned for districts to make the switch, and are handing the first 96 districts that do so $10,000 grants.
It’s also unclear whether JCPS will be among those districts receiving a grant. That will likely depend on how many other districts approved the policy Monday night, and when they are able to submit their documentation.
“Even though we didn’t adopt it the day after it passed [districts could begin adopting new policies two weeks ago], we’ve been there for a good ten years or more,” says District 3’s Debbie Wesslund, referring to the number of years JCPS has supported that state legislative decision.
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