The Indiana General Assembly has taken a major step to deal with the school dropout rate in the state.

In an effort to encourage students to stay in school — and to aid them in that quest — House Bill 1347 will establish a number of ways for schools to address the problem.

The issue, legislators and educators all agree, is serious.

By current calculations, 90 percent of Indiana high school seniors are graduating.

That number, however, is deceiving, according to the Manhattan Institute, a nonprofit research group, which calculates Indiana’s rate of dropout at 28 percent, or 20,000 students per year.

The Indiana Youth Institute reports 55,979 students earned diplomas from public high schools in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available.

That same year, it reported 8,045 students dropped out.

The bill, which passed the House Monday with amendments the Senate made, addresses several areas, including:

• Identifying and counseling students who show signs of becoming dropouts;

• Reviewing a student’s career plan each year;

• Creating dual credits so a student may take classes at Ivy Tech, Vincennes or another college that offers them;

• Tightening the requirements for dropping out.

Kokomo-Center Schools can track young students who struggle academically, or are in Title I programs, and directs a good amount of attention toward them, Superintendent Thomas Little Jr. said.

A number of dropouts, however, are average students who hit high school and find it overwhelming for a variety of reasons.

“There are kids who get by with average grades and are working their way through the system and attaining levels of achievement,” Little said.

“Then, they hit high school and have problems achieving levels that will let them succeed.

“It’s a big transition between high school and middle school programs. Some students find that very challenging.”

Students, he noted, go from attending elementary school and receiving instruction in a multitude of subjects from one teacher, to sixth grade and having classes with five or six teachers.

“That’s a real challenge to make that jump, and it’s true with the eighth to ninth grade jump, moving from a smaller school environment to a high school program,” Little said.

“We’re exploring a lot of transitional programs we might want to put in place.

“There are students who are just making it and then hit a wall at the high school. Maturity has a lot to do with it, I believe, and so does being able to handle the responsibility of getting good grades.

“It’s about organization and dealing with the additional freedom they’re given and being able to handle that freedom.”

That’s one reason he believes the dual credit provision is an extraordinary idea.

“By providing opportunities for students to take course work at Ivy Tech that can help them achieve a high school diploma as well as classes and semester hours at the college level, that’s a win for the student,” the Kokomo superintendent said.

That offering might also help students who have problems with attendance or discipline in high school, said Northern Community Schools Superintendent Lee Williford.

“Anybody in education knows that if kids aren’t in school, it’s difficult for them to learn. Whatever we can do to keep kids in school is a plus,” he said.

“There is a fine line we have to walk. If kids are very disruptive and cause other students to jeopardize their learning situation, we have to find other things for them to do.”

Allowing them to take classes at Ivy Tech or other public and private colleges might solve some of those problems as well.

With a career program in place and a way for those students to follow it in a college atmosphere, it might make finding a reason to stay in school easier for them, Little said.

“Many times, kids enter a class in high school and can’t see the relevancy. ‘How will this get me a job and prepare me for a career?’” he explained.

“Moving to another venue might raise that level of relevancy. They have to have a purpose in life. They need to see a relevancy to these types of classes and how they will make a difference in whether they obtain a well-paying job.”

The state has given school districts the power to revoke work permits and driver’s licenses of students who drop out. This bill will require reporting those numbers.

Little, however, says there are ways around that for a student.

“What’s happening here is that students are, at times, going out under the home-school ruling. They apply for a home-school permit, which, unfortunately, takes them out of our schools. We don’t have the option of revoking those,” he explained. “They’ve left our school system and moved to another educational program.

“There are very good home-school programs that are providing excellent educational opportunities for kids. Unfortunately, we believe some who are leaving at the high school level and enrolling in home school are attempting to evade the restrictions on them. I don’t believe proponents of home-school programs would be supportive of that.”

After raising the age a student may drop out of school to 18 in 2005, this bill would require a student to get permission to drop out for health reasons or financial hardship, or with permission of a judge.

While Williford sees the annual career review plan as a good idea, there is a problem with staffing, especially at small schools.

“We have two counselors for 1,050 kids. One of those is at the elementary,” he said. “We have one counselor for all the middle and high school kids. Do we have the resources to do that?

“It appears to be another mandate that ends up costing the school and we have to figure out a way to get the resources to fund it.

“I think the intent is clear: Students need to be in school learning and get a diploma. How we manage that is the difficult part.”

Getting students through the educational system while preparing them for life beyond is “our main job,” Little said.

“Keeping them in school, getting a diploma and continuing on with their education beyond high school. We know learning doesn’t stop at high school.”

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