Boosting graduation rates by examining discipline

Posted April 29, 2010, at 6:54 p.m.

On April 7, a momentous step was taken. Maine’s 124th Legislature enacted LD 1658, an Act to Increase Maine’s High School Graduation Rate.

This bill intends to create a stakeholder group to evaluate barriers to high school graduation and make recommendations to the state’s school systems so Maine can increase its graduation rate to 90 percent by the 2015-16 school year. It is important to recognize the alarming statistics associated with high school dropout rates.

Each year in Maine more than 3,000 students drop out of high school. The negative fiscal impact of dropping out of high school is immense, not only for the dropout, but also for our state.

Over the lifetime of each class of dropouts, Maine will pay nearly $50 million for health care costs. A study by the Alliance for Excellent Education showed that increasing male graduation by 5 percent in Maine would bring the state $15 million in crime-related savings and additional revenues.

Dropouts earn $10,000 less per year, on average, than students who graduate from high school, causing them to earn far less over their lifetimes. Similarly, dropouts are more likely to rely on welfare assistance in order to meet basic needs. Increasing Maine’s graduation rate to 90 percent will help reduce budget crises by in-creasing Maine’s revenues while decreasing spending.

Students drop out of school for many reasons. The most common risk factors include: low socioeconomic status; membership in a racial-ethnic minority group; limited English proficiency; academic problems; mental health issues; substance abuse; behavioral and disciplinary problems; teenage pregnancy; safety issues and feel-ing harassed — particularly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and students of color; absenteeism and truancy; family problems; high mobility; having siblings or friends who drop out; living in a single-parent household; strong dislike for traditional schooling and low educational achievement of parents. Many students have multiple factors working against their successful completion of school.

Beth Arsenault, director of the Alternative Education Program at Portland High School states, “I’ve met kids who have circumstantial factors that they just can’t overcome. And when the decision becomes feeding your family, baby-sitting for your younger siblings, working so that you can pay your own rent because you don’t live at home or being homeless and having to move from town to town, then you’re not dropping out, you’re just simply not able to continue on at school.”

The stakeholder group created by this bill will have a chance to delve into these situations in communities and make recommendations to help our students overcome the forces that hold them back.

Through the stakeholder group, ineffective school policies such as zero tolerance would be examined. Zero tolerance policies were put into place to create safe and efficient learning environments, but have singled out populations most likely to drop out and have pushed them toward the criminal justice system.

Zero tolerance policies create a pipeline to prison for some students. This pipeline refers to the occurrence of students being pushed out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system by enforcing zero tolerance policies and involving the police in minor discipline issues.

A January 2010 study conducted by the Advancement Project found that the more time an expelled student spent away from school, the greater the chance the student would drop out and end up in the criminal justice system. Students with low economic status, special needs and behavioral and emotional disorders have been dis-ciplined more by zero tolerance policies than other students. The school-to-prison pipeline isolates students from their peers and learning environments, increasing the chance of dropout.

We recommend that the stakeholder group examine school disciplinary policies, situational factors relating to drop out, and the negative fiscal impact that dropping out has on our state. With the implementation of LD 1658, we expect the stakeholder group will examine and develop new strategies to address the underlying problems leading to a student’s dropping out.

Change cannot happen without continued support from our communities. Contact your legislator or school district and share your input on how to strengthen Maine’s school systems and increase graduation rates.

Heather Kitchen and Alyson Byard are graduate students in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine.

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