BY DAVID OLSON STAFF WRITER , PREE ENTERPRISE (Inland Empire) http://bit.ly/AfaFnz
STAN LIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER - Students walk to class during a passing period on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at North High School in Riverside. For story on how students might be at risk of dropping out if they had not enrolled in special programs at North.
26 February 2012 09:42 PM :: President Obama’s recent call for all states to require students to stay in school until age 18 is spurring discussion and debate across the country.
But California has had such a law since 1977, and high dropout rates in some schools illustrate how mandatory attendance laws fail to prevent some kids from leaving school.
Inland educators and national experts say the law sends a strong message to students and parents that staying in school is important. But they say that more crucial are classes, programs and teaching methods that engage pupils.
“The law is not the thing that makes the difference,” said Ray Culberson, director of youth services at San Bernardino Unified School District. “What will make the difference is whatever keeps students motivated.”
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia require students to be in school until they turn 18 or graduate, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group partially funded by states to advise them on policy. The rest have compulsory attendance ages of 16 or 17.
Several states have enacted age-18 laws in the past few years, and the president’s remarks are igniting more dialogue on what already has been a major education topic in state capitals, said Sunny Deye, a senior education policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Proposals to raise compulsory attendance ages to 18 have failed in a number of states, with opponents arguing that the cost of educating more students during a time of budget cuts is too high, that forcing students to go to school leads to disruptive classrooms and that the requirement is unfair to home-schooling parents, she said.
Research shows raising the compulsory attendance age keeps more students in school, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.
“The students who are disruptive are dropping out because the students don’t see real-world applications and think their classes are boring,” she said.
Pregnancy and financial obligations are among other reasons students drop out, she said.
California hasn’t studied the effects the 1977 law had on dropout rates, said David Kopperud, an educational programs consultant with the California Department of Education.
The law makes it illegal for a student under 18 who has not graduated to be absent from school without a valid excuse such as illness, and it holds parents responsible for their children.
The state had a 17.5 percent dropout rate in 2009-10. San Bernardino County’s rate was 20.9 percent and Riverside County’s was 16.3 percent. Experts say poverty, single-parent households and other socioeconomic factors contribute to higher dropout rates.
Many dropouts evade detection despite the law because it’s so expensive and time-consuming to locate every truant, said Russell Rumberger, a University of California vice provost and author of the recently released study, “Dropping Out: Why Students Drop out of High School.”
Schools need to address underlying issues that affect a student’s decision to drop out, he said. But budget cuts have reduced the number of teachers, counselors and others who develop the types of meaningful relationships that keep students coming to school, he said.
“We’re cutting the things that matter: people,” Rumberger said.
Rumberger said the more than 500 “partnership academies” in California schools – including dozens in the Inland area – are one way of motivating students. The academies, which receive extra state funding, include career-oriented curricula along with traditional academic subjects. Students have the same teachers for three years to build relationships.
Riverside’s North High School has three academies. Priscilla Reideman, a senior in North’s law enforcement and protective services academy, said she thought of dropping out of school after her mother died in January 2011. The mandatory attendance law didn’t faze her. But the academy’s coordinator, Carolina Tamayo, convinced her that she needed to stay in school to attain her goal of becoming a parole officer.
Reideman, 17, said she respects Tamayo and was comfortable confiding in her.
“I’m very close with her,” Reideman said. “I’ve known her for two years. I’m at a point where I can open up to her.”
Tamayo said by having the same students for three years, she can more easily spot potential problems.
“You don’t send them to a counselor,” she said. “You’re with them every day.”
Tamayo oversees 209 students. Counselors have 700 students each, Assistant Principal Rich Davis said.
Tamayo also coordinates the school’s multicultural council. Jodie Burton, 18, a student on the for-credit council, said she regularly skipped school her freshman and sophomore years but is now on track to graduate. She credits the multicultural council for keeping her in school.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” Burton said.
Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based educational-reform group, said anti-dropout strategies have future payoffs.
Cutting the dropout rate in half in Riverside and San Bernardino counties would infuse $184 million into the region’s economy, he said, citing an alliance study released last year that looked at the increased earnings and spending generated by a more highly educated workforce.
Richard Husband, director of student support services at Hemet Unified School District, said some students who would have dropped out when they turned 16 realize the importance of school as they get older and more mature.
That’s one reason it’s important to crack down on truancy and keep kids in the classroom, he said. Student resource officers regularly make rounds at parks, malls and other places truant kids may hang out, Husband said.
Police and sheriff’s department officials say they look out for underage students during regular patrols and pick them up.
San Bernardino Unified complements patrols with visits to truants’ homes, Culberson said.
The district’s 33.2 percent dropout rate is nearly double the statewide number. But the gap between the 42.9 percent rate at San Bernardino High School, which is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Inland region, and the 16.3 percent rate at Cajon High School, in a middle-class area, illustrates the effect poverty, educational attainment of parents and other factors have. San Bernardino is the nation’s second poorest big city, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
From August to January, more than 1,000 truant students in San Bernardino Unified were brought before special boards and panels that seek to combat truancy, and 256 parents were given citations, Culberson said.
Other Inland districts also have special panels, many of which include counselors to find out the root of a truancy problem and, in repeat cases, police and district attorney’s office representatives.
The carrot-and-stick approach, of offering assistance to students and parents but using punishment if that doesn’t work, is often effective, Culberson said.
“Schools that want to do the right thing are going to want to do whatever they can to have kids in school and have them graduate,” he said.