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Councilors push bill to reduce dropouts

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 26, 2011

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Two Boston city councilors, frustrated that hundreds of city teenagers quit school each year, launched an effort yesterday to persuade the Legislature to raise the legal dropout age in Boston from 16 to 18.

Councilors John Connolly and Tito Jackson said that they believe that 16-year-olds are too young to understand the dire consequences of quitting school and that a roughly century-old state law that allows them to do so is outdated.

They point to research that shows that high school dropouts make significantly less money than college graduates and are more likely to depend on welfare or go to jail.

“We don’t let 16-year-olds vote or buy alcohol, but we allow them to decide not to stay in school; it doesn’t make sense,’’ Connolly, chairman of the council’s Education Committee, said in an interview yesterday. “We don’t want a 16-year-old closing off his or her future by making a hasty decision.’’

The push is being made as a similar effort to raise the state’s dropout age from 16 to 18 has sputtered on Beacon Hill, though some legislators continue to advocate for the idea.

During yesterday’s City Council meeting, the two members filed an order to hold a public hearing on raising the city’s dropout age, the first step needed to gain the council’s backing in pursuing a home-rule petition in the Legislature.

Connolly and Jackson said that Massachusetts needs to take action quickly and that the proposal they are developing could serve as a test case for increasing the compulsory school age statewide.

“The clock is ticking,’’ Jackson said in an interview. “We refuse to give up on our young people. Raising the age raises the expectations on young people.’’

Over the past decade, a handful of states have increased compulsory school ages to either 17 or 18. New Hampshire raised its dropout age to 18 at the start of the last school year, and its dropout rate that year was cut nearly in half, to slightly below 1 percent.

Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for Boston’s School Department, said that Superintendent Carol R. Johnson and the School Committee are looking into the idea and have not yet taken an official position.

But Wilder said: “We feel the dropout crisis is an important issue that we are working hard to remedy. We are proud we have a dropout rate that has been the lowest in nearly three decades, but too many students are dropping out.’’

Last year, 6.8 percent, or 1,196, of the city’s 17,498 high school students dropped out, compared to 2.9 percent statewide, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Boston School Department has made a number of changes to keep more students in school, such as expanding online courses and tracking down dropouts to persuade them to return to school.

In September, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education will hold a hearing on bills filed to raise the compulsory school age across the state, including one by Representative Martha Walz, a Boston Democrat, that calls for a variety of intervention programs.

Connolly and Jackson said their home-rule petition, like Walz’s bill, would also call for the creation of new programs or the expansion of current programs that are getting results.

Donna Walker, 17, of Dorchester, said raising the dropout age is a good idea. Walker recently returned to school, enrolling at Dorchester Academy while taking courses at the district’s re-engagement center.

“I left school for a period of time, and that was the biggest mistake I made,’’ said Walker. “You can’t do anything without a high school diploma.’’

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