STANFORD — As Kentucky legislators again prepare to knock heads over raising the dropout age from 16 to 18, there are some students at Fort Logan High School who think the decision should be a no-brainer.
“They should raise it,” said senior Cheyenne Wheeler. “If you drop out at an earlier age, you are just setting yourself up for failure.”
Classmate Zach Walls agrees, as does April Jenkins, who graduated from Fort Logan in 2010, and Principal Scott Montgomery and Lincoln schools Superintendent Karen Hatter. In fact, Montgomery and Hatter said they don’t know of anyone involved in education locally who doesn’t think that students, their families and their communities would be better served if kids had to stay in high school for two more years.
“I haven’t heard anyone say it’s negative and I’ve even asked our students,” Montgomery said. “Even the kids know they need a high school education.”
With a personal push from Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear, a bill raising the dropout age to 18 moved out of the House Education Committee into the full chamber on Tuesday. Many similar bills in the past have been approved in the House only to die in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Republican senators have argued that raising the age will just keep disruptive kids in school for two additional years at the expense of those striving to obtain their diplomas. Such a law would also force school systems to absorb additional costs of keeping unruly students enrolled without providing any additional funding.
Montgomery agrees that it will take more money to keep would-be dropouts in school, but he says any extra expense will pay big dividends in the long run.
“It’s a difference in frontloading or backloading your expense,” he said. “You either pay up front or you pay for public assistance for kids who can’t get jobs or do something and wind up in prison. The costs on the back end far outweigh the initial investment. It’s not even close.”
Montgomery noted that a recent survey of prison inmates across America revealed that 85 percent did not have a high school diploma.
Montgomery has been principal of Fort Logan since it opened 16 years ago as a way to improve Lincoln County’s dropout rate, which at the time was regularly among the highest in the state.
The school gives students who have fallen behind academically and are considered a high risk not to finish school an opportunity to catch up and graduate by providing more individual attention to struggling students.
“I know the difference it’s made for the students we’ve had over 16 years in getting a job, joining the military or going on to college,” he said.
Fort Logan’s first graduating class had 16 members and the largest class was 76, with the average class size consisting of about 50 students, many of whom likely would have dropped out, Montgomery said.
While Fort Logan does lose a few students along the way, the vast majority of those who graduate are able to find work, enlist in military service or continue their educations, he said.
“We don’t lose very many,” Montgomery said. “We have better than an 80 percent success rate on transitioning our kids to adult life.”
Most school districts have programs similar to Fort Logan and others designed to help keep high risk students on track to graduate. Alternative schools for students with discipline issues, homebound programs for those with medical issues and the growing use of e-schooling and web-based learning opportunities are all ways districts try to keep students involved despite challenges.
Hatter, the superintendent, said schools need to continue to expand the ways “to reduce the barriers that make them want to drop out.”
“The traditional school setting may not meet the needs of all students in getting them college and career ready,” she said. “Dealing with disengaged students is one of the hardest challenges in high school.”
Lincoln has recently refocused its efforts to identify struggling students as early as fifth grade and is taking steps to correct the situation before the students get too far behind and become likely candidates to drop out as they get older. The program is called Coordinated School Health.
Hatter said it uses nurses to address health issues that might be holding a student back, counselors to take on students with disciplinary problems and the family resource center to resolve issues in a student’s home life.