BOSTON—A new proposal targeting Massachusetts' high school dropout rate would track students as early as third grade for warning signs and would require businesses to give parents up to 24 hours a year in paid leave for student academic needs.
Under a bill introduced this month by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, the state would expand its "Early Warning Indicator Index" -- which identifies students as early as eighth grade who are at risk of dropping out -- and create a pilot program that would follow students in third grade.
The bill would also allow parents to take paid time off to handle their child's academic needs, such as attending parent-teacher conferences, and limit the use of school suspensions for non-felonious acts.
Chang-Diaz said such moves are needed to tackle the state's four-year high school dropout rate, which is hovering around 9 percent, according to 2008-2009 data, the latest state numbers available.
"Massachusetts is known for having such a strong public school system," said Chang-Diaz, who is a former Lynn teacher. "But not all of our students are benefiting from it. We need to change that."
The state's annual high school dropout rate is 2.9 percent. That rate reflects one year of data across ninth through 12th grade and not a "cohort," or the same group of students followed over four years.
Chang-Diaz said if rates continue without substantial changes, Massachusetts will lose money in the future because the state's economy will be forced to absorb a population that won't be prepared for growing sectors that need educated workers.
Kathy Hamilton, coordinator for the Boston-based Youth Transition Task Force, welcomed news of the proposal and said efforts to go after dropout rates are long overdue.
"We're very excited about the proposal and look forward to the discussions," Hamilton said. "This might be the right year for these reforms."
Irvin Scott, chief academic officer for Boston Public Schools, said district officials were pleased that state lawmakers were turning attention to students who aren't graduating. He said the district has already instituted a number of dropout prevention measures, including partnering with community groups to help bring back students who had dropped out.
Scott questioned the move of monitoring students as early as third grade.
"The research shows that we should start at the middle school level, but if the research shows we should go to third grade ... that's something we should consider," he said.
Chang-Diaz said that in the past, talk over nongraduates often centered around high rates among certain student populations, like Latinos and African American students. She said state numbers show not only that the four-year cohort high school dropout rate is 17 percent for urban schools, but also that the rate is hitting rural school districts.
"When someone drops out, it affects us all, no matter who they are," Chang-Diaz said.
Jeffrey Ciuffreda, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, said business leaders have long been concerned around the state's dropout rate. In Springfield, for example, state numbers show that the four-year cohort high school dropout rate is 28 percent.
However, he said business leaders likely would oppose any mandated paid leave.
"We'd be willing to sit at the table," Ciuffreda said. "I just don't know if mandated time off would be the answer."
Michael Supranowicz, president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, agreed. Supranowicz said many companies already give employees time off for their child's academic needs.
"I'm not quite sure that the way you address this is to start mandating time off," Supranowicz said. "One size doesn't fit all. Sometimes we Band-Aid issues instead of addressing the root of the problem."
That root, Supranowicz said, involves going after students early, even before they even enter the classroom.
"Maybe we should start by pushing pre-K," Supranowicz said.