By Magen McCrarey
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Laurel County Schools are facing the option to increase the mandatory attendance age from 16 to 18, after Gov. Steve Beshear signed Senate Bill 97 into law on Monday, March 18. Superintendent Doug Bennett said the Laurel County School District is closely reviewing SB 97 to determine the impact it might have on local students.
A long-awaited goal of Beshear’s, the bill could keep a vast amount of students enrolled in school for a longer period of time.
“Finally, we have agreed to stop jeopardizing our students’ futures by allowing them to leave school before they’re even eligible for a driver’s license. Now, we are holding them to 21st century expectations of education and training,” said Gov. Beshear in a press released on Monday. “The days of dropping out of high school and expecting a dependable, well-paying job are long gone. “
The school board can vote to increase the dropout age to 18 now, but, according to the Kentucky Department of Education, the revision won’t be enforceable until the 2015-16 school year. Once 55 percent of the state’s school districts adopt the policy, all remaining districts must then adopt the standard within four years.
In Laurel County, the graduation rate is 67.8 percent, with a dropout rate of 1.97 percent. Tharon Hurley, district director of Assessment and Accountability, said those numbers are unsatisfactory. One of the largest target areas for district improvement following the latest 2011-12 Kentucky Unbridled Learning report card is raising the graduation rate and eliminating dropouts, he said.
There are currently 471 students enrolled in the Laurel County School District who are 18 years or older, the majority of which are seniors. Of those, 402 are 18 years, 67 are 19 years, and two are 20-years-old. There are 17 sophomores and two freshman age 18 or above.
Studies have shown high school graduates are less likely to commit crimes, rely on government health care or use other public services such as food stamps or housing assistance. Graduates provide both economic and social benefits to society, earning higher wages and living longer.
“This bill is an economic win for Kentucky and an even bigger win for the students who otherwise may not have stayed in school,” said Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.
For local students who have dropped out or wish to return to receive their high school diploma, the Laurel County School District offers alternative education through the McDaniel Learning Center.
The center, which opened in 2008, offers students a second chance. Many students have withdrawn from high school to take on full-time jobs or raise a child and have returned to their studies at the center. Approximately 130 students are enrolled each year from North and South Laurel High Schools, all of which are provided one-on-one instruction.
Another benefit for local students currently in the works is the Laurel Career Readiness Center, a vocational school that board members hope will lower the high school drop-out rate by nearly 3 percent.
Board member Tommy Smith said he believes the district should increase the dropout rate age, because the dropout rate is “too high.”
“I had mixed feelings to begin with, but to my understanding, it will take a lot of pressure off the social programs and that has to be a positive,” Smith said. “If we can get a person to graduate and try to be a productive citizen and keep off social programs, which are all tax payer funded, it has to make the society as a whole a better place to live.”
Board member Ed Jones said, like Smith, he has mixed feelings about the bill, but is ultimately for raising the dropout age.
“It’s important that everybody graduates from high school. The reasons are proven so they have the opportunity to earn more and get better employment,” Jones said. “However, if they’re not able to graduate, and they don’t have the desire to graduate, for whatever reason, to see it through, I’m concerned. Are these going to be issues that can’t be resolved in the classroom without some kind of disciplinary problems?”
“Right now, I’m waiting to see what we are going to have in terms of stipulations on students. Graduating requires the will and the self-discipline to stick it out.”