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State may study how N.H. cut dropouts

Rate fell after law made students stay to 18; Massachusetts looking to broaden approach

Shawn Wright, 19, (right) a former high school dropout, worked in a baking class at Manchester School of Technology with teacher and chef James Tabor. Shawn Wright, 19, (right) a former high school dropout, worked in a baking class at Manchester School of Technology with teacher and chef James Tabor. (Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 18, 2011

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — As Massachusetts considers raising its dropout age to 18, a similar measure enacted in New Hampshire has cut that state’s dropout rate nearly in half in its first year.

The Granite State’s dropout rate has tumbled to just under 1 percent for the last school year, from 1.7 percent the previous year, when 16- and 17-year-olds could quit school without earning a diploma.

“What we’ve done is set a goal for all students to graduate and it really has been embraced at the local level,’’ said New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, who wants the dropout rate at zero by the 2012-13 school year. “Every school principal, teacher, and other educator is focused on how to keep students in school and find programs for them that keeps them motivated.’’

Massachusetts officials say they want to find out more about New Hampshire’s strategy as they try to reduce the Bay State’s dropout rate, which has held steady at 2.9 percent for the past two years. Some cities, such as Holyoke, Lawrence, and Springfield, have rates three times higher than the state average.

To get the law on the books, New Hampshire had to overcome similar hurdles that have stymied Massachusetts’ effort to raise its dropout age from 16 to 18: finding money for new programs, such as night school and online courses, to support students at risk of dropping out, who typically have academic, emotional, or social problems.

New Hampshire, which changed its compulsory school law in 2007, allowed two years to create or expand programs for students, giving several school districts a head start on getting more 16- and 17-year-olds through school before the age change became official in 2009.

In Manchester, the state’s largest school system, several students said New Hampshire’s investment has been life-changing. The city has pursued such initiatives as expanding opportunities for alternative education programs, online courses, and internships, and school representatives even knock on the door of students who have not been in class for a while.

Shawn Wright, 19, dropped out two years ago for what became an unsuccessful quest to become a chef. He returned to school a year later, enrolling in an alternative program that allows him to take culinary classes at a vocational school.

“I filled out 30 job applications and didn’t get any responses,’’ said Wright, who supports the age change. “When you are younger than 18, your mind is not set on school and you want to get out of it.’’

He later added, “I’m planning on sticking it out this time and get my diploma and a good job.’’

During the last decade, more than a half-dozen states, including Connecticut and New Mexico, have raised compulsory school ages in an effort to get more students to graduation, while about a dozen other states have considered such a change in the last few years, according to researchers.

Supporters call it a common-sense measure that remedies a paradox: State officials talk of the importance of earning a high school diploma, but still allow students to quit school.

The stakes for students not earning diplomas are high, especially in such states as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which are trying to build highly skilled workforces. New Hampshire last year had 64,483 high school students, and Massachusetts had 290,502.

Dropouts, compared with adults who earn diplomas, are less likely to hold a job or be involved in their communities, and are more likely to depend on public assistance or even go to jail, researchers have found.

Students — by the hundreds each year in New Hampshire and the thousands in Massachusetts — quit school for many reasons, including boredom, drug or alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, the desire to make money or help out their parents financially, or simply because they think that no one cares, according to researchers and educators.

When New Hampshire raised its compulsory school age from 16 to 18, it amended a law enacted more than a century ago when farm and factory jobs, once the backbone of the state’s economy, didn’t require diplomas.

In Massachusetts, a legislative commission in October 2009 urged the state to raise its dropout age to 18 as part of a sweeping dropout prevention plan. The Patrick administration said at that time it would file legislation in the coming months, but never followed through.

Paul Reville, the Massachusetts education secretary, said in an interview that the state’s budget crisis prevented the governor from moving forward. In addition to raising the age, Patrick wants the legislation to help school districts create programs to help at-risk students.

In the meantime, Reville said, the state has been able to pursue a few dropout-prevention measures, such as creating a tracking system for ninth graders who are academically behind and at risk of quitting school. He noted that the state’s current dropout rate is the lowest in two decades, but said that the loss of more than 8,000 students is still too many.

“Raising the age is an aspiration we continue to have,’’ Reville said. “It’s the right thing to do.’’

But he added, “If you symbolically raise the age and don’t put programs in place you don’t get results.’’

Some legislators are pushing more aggressively, and at least two bills have been filed to raise the dropout age. The bills are now before the Joint Education Committee.

“I think we should stop letting young adults walk away at age 16,’’ said state Representative Martha Walz, a Boston Democrat who filed one of the bills. “Few, if any, 16-year-olds have the wisdom and knowledge to understand the lifelong consequences of ending their high school education at 16.’’

Research on raising the compulsory school age has been mixed. The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy in Cambridge said in a report two years ago that raising the compulsory school age alone, without creating new programs, would essentially be futile.

Nearly four years into New Hampshire’s effort, the law remains as controversial here as when Lynch originally proposed the age change in fall 2005.

Just last month the New Hampshire House, under a new Republican majority, overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow students 16 or older to withdraw from school as long as they get parental permission. The bill is now in the state Senate.

Lynch and a growing chorus of educators have gone on the defensive, holding public events to highlight the law’s successes.

One skeptic-turned-champion in New Hampshire is the Manchester school superintendent, Thomas Brennan, who has been swayed by the data. The city’s dropout rate has slid to 2.3 percent last year from 3.9 percent the previous year.

But he remains concerned about funding the effort once a federal grant runs out.

“Things are moving in a positive direction, but we are not 100 percent successful yet,’’ Brennan said.

Jason Mattia, an outreach coordinator at Manchester Central High School, said the key to keeping students in school is finding a program that is the best match for a student’s academic needs and life situation.

The state has devoted about $1.6 million for each of the past two years to work on dropout prevention programs, targeting school districts with the largest populations of students at risk of dropping out and those who already have left.

The districts have used the money to develop individual learning plans for students, opportunities for internships, independent studies, online courses, and chances to take college courses. Some districts have also expanded eligibility to take evening adult education classes so that poor students can hold day jobs.

Several Massachusetts school districts have adopted many of the same initiatives. Those programs could be more effective if Massachusetts raised its dropout age, proponents say. As Walz puts it, getting students through school is not a “mysterious unknown formula.’’

“Is it going to cost money? Sure,’’ Walz said. “But it saves money in the long run. It’s less likely those students will need government programs and they will be able earn enough to support themselves and their families.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.