Enrollment, dropout ages to change?

Published 8:04pm Thursday, January 26, 2012

Change may be coming to Alabama’s school systems in the form of legislation that would require students to remain in school an extra two years longer than is currently required.

A proposed bill in Alabama would lower the mandatory enrollment age to six and a national movement to raise the drop out age to 18 may also be in the works.

Although kindergarten is not mandatory in Alabama, the state’s compulsory education law currently requires students to enroll in first grade no later then age seven and mandates that students may not drop out of school until age 17.

The proposed bill to lower the mandatory age of enrollment is a bipartisan effort between Rep. John Merrill, R –Tuscaloosa, and Sen. Priscilla Dunn, D – Bessemer, and is scheduled for introduction into the upcoming legislative session on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

The proposal to raise the drop out age to 18 came straight from the top. President Barack Obama spoke in favor of the change during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

In the last five years Alabama has raised the drop out age from 16 to 17.

Escambia County Interim Superintendent Randall Little said he is in complete favor of raising the age, but cautioned that change alone will not solve the problem of high school dropouts.

“It definitely would be a move in the right direction,” Little said. “But for it to be effective school districts are definitely going to have to continue to emphasize forms of alternate education and remediation.”

Little said most dropouts, although not all, do so because of academic issues that could be corrected with additional educational services.

“Many students that do wish to drop out at 17 are academically behind,” he said. “They are not having good academic experiences at school and, as a result, they become frustrated, disappointed and therefore want to leave school.”

Current programs in place in Escambia County to provide additional help for struggling students must be maintained and upgraded, according to Little, for the dropout rate to decline.

“We have remediation before school, we have remediation after school. We have alternate programs for them now,” Little said. “All of these programs came about over the years since No Child Left Behind back in 2001. These programs will have to be stepped up to deal with a good number of these 18-year-olds if the state decides to increase the age.”

Escambia County High School Principal Zickeyous Byrd said he too is in favor of raising the dropout age.

“There is little chance of a productive or bright future for a child who doesn’t obtain a diploma,” Byrd said. “Our kids need to stay and graduate. It doesn’t matter if they are 19 or 20. They need to graduate. I think the president is right, and I think it’s a good decision.”

Little said the bill aimed to lower the age when a child would begin school is, not only a good idea, but would also help decrease the number of students who later drop out.

“I definitely would not object to lowering the age to six,” Little said. “It would give them a more formal structured environment. The earlier we get them the better off we will be down the road.”

If passed the bill would also change the birthday cutoff date for enrollment form September 1 to August 1. Under the current system a school beginning the year in mid-August could have a child entering the first grade as late as age eight.

VOICES for Alabama’s Children, one of the many organizations supporting the lowering of the mandatory enrollment age, reported that children develop the bulk of there intellect, personality and other skills by age five.

Lynette Penner, director of HIPPY, a program in Atmore designed to prepare preschoolers for success in school, said she does not believe lowering the age of enrollment would have a major impact in Esambia County due to most parents choosing to send their children to kindergarten.

“I don’t know anyone that it would matter to personally,” Penner said. “Now if you dropped the age from six to five I would say you’re kind of infringing on the parent’s rights.”

In regard to raising the dropout age, Penner said her experience has shown her that some kids make a conscious decision at an early age that they will leave school.

“If the kids want to drop out, they probably have decided it from early on,” she said. “If kids know they just piddle around until they get to the age. I’ve met kids that were planning to dropout. They were just waiting until they got old enough to do it.”

Penner said the true solution for solving the dropout crisis lies with the parents.

“It doesn’t matter what the age is, they’re still going to drop out,” she said. “Changing the age isn’t going to make as much difference as making sure the parents are preparing the kids so that at whatever age they go in, they’re ready.”

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