Commonwealth Journal

March 24, 2013

Somerset schools ahead of dropout legislation

City already has program in place to encourage students to graduate at 18

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

A new state law that will eventually raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 is sliding right in line with  existing efforts in the Somerset School System to keep students in the classroom as long as possible.
“There’s been an alternative track in existence at Somerset High School for some years,” said Somerset Schools Superintendent Boyd Randolph. “Those students whose lives have circumstances beyond their control ... if school gets to be a distraction in life, we try to make school fit into their environment.”
That program has been expanded, and SHS Principal Wesley Cornett and his staff have made it their goal to reach out to as many students as possible who are at-risk of dropping out of school.
Right now, as per state law, they can stop attending school with a parent’s consent at age 16. That means a student can drop out of school before senior year. 
But after five years of several lawmakers pushing for a higher dropout age, Governor Steve Beshear this week signed Senate Bill 97, which will allow individual school districts to raise the dropout age to 18 on a voluntary basis. Once 55 percent of the 174 districts have done so, it would become mandatory for all other districts to follow suit within four years.
That new law works hand-in-hand with Somerset’s efforts, according to Cornett.
“I was personally glad to see it happen,” said Cornett. “To me, what better way to invest your money than with kids?”
Cornett said SHS currently has a “credit recovery” program, during which students who have dropped out or fallen significantly behind can opt for an alternative route. The route is student-paced, is delivered through a computer program closely adhering to national academic content standards, and its overseen by an SHS staff member. The program can only be accessed at SHS to ensure students are receiving the education they need to graduate. 
“We have seen a lot of results,” said Cornett. “We saw a lot of students graduate last year who would not have graduated without that.”
So how does Cornett and other SHS staffers bring students back into the fold? 
Easy. They contact them, either by phone or by home visitation.
“We’ve gone to students’ homes and asked kids to come back,” said Cornett. “ ... We ask them ‘How can we meet your needs? How can we get you back?’”
Many students have responded positively, and Cornett said it’s been “a blessing” to see the success stories.
“We’ve been very pleased with (the program),” said Cornett. “We know for a fact they would not have graduated without that, because (the students) even told me so.”
Randolph said the Somerset School System, with only one high school, is a bit more small-scale, and he said it’s easier for teachers and administrators to make one-on-one contact with students and their families. 
“That’s the beauty of our community,” said Randolph, “we know each other.
“It’s not a big obstacle to overcome to make home visits,” added Randolph. 
Randolph said the Somerset School Board will discuss the new law in an upcoming workshop meeting, and from there they’ll decide how to implement the new requirements. One reason the law isn’t mandatory right away is due to criticism that school districts may not be equipped to offer alternative
education to students facing academic difficulty or failure, some of whom often display accompanying behavior problems.
Cornett and Randolph both said Somerset is fortunate because it has a smaller student population. The financial impact for Somerset is smaller than it would be for a larger school district. 
Fayette County Schools has already taken steps to adhere to the new law, a quick decision that has that district leading the way in the transition. Randolph said larger school districts would do well to make the change now and make sure the program is viable and make changes before the law becomes mandatory.
“The first thing, as a superintendent, is to make sure your system can work,” said Randolph.
So far, Somerset’s dropout program seems to be working well. 
“We were trying to do this before (the new law) even went into place,” said Randolph. “ We were trying to give a viable option so (students) don’t have to drop out.”
To Cornett, it’s all about reaching the students and helping them understand that there are other options besides dropping out — a move that has been proven to lead to low-paying jobs and a shut-out from other, more specialized jobs, all of which require high school and post-secondary degrees. 
“Our goal is to educate them, make sure we’re meeting standards,” said Cornett. “We’ve got to educate them, we’ve got to let them know we love them and we care for them.
“We still fail,” added Cornett. “I’m not reaching all of them. But we think for the most part we’ve saved some kids.”