Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, 16-year-old students can no longer drop out of school in Maryland.
A law passed by the state Legislature in 2012 took effect July 1, raising the age of compulsory school attendance to 17. Under the same law, by the 2017-18 school year, only 18-year-old students will be able to drop out.
Lean budget times have not allowed Frederick County Public Schools to prepare for the change as much as staff would have liked, said Kathleen Hartsock, the school system’s director of student services.
FCPS developed an action plan in 2013 in accordance with this law that involved the hiring of more staff, particularly school counselors at the high school level, to account for the larger number of students who would remain in school, Hartsock said.
The action plan states that one counselor should be hired for every 250 students, the American School Counselor Association’s recommended level. The plan was submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education. Its final cost has not been determined.
The school system did not hire more staff, and also during this budget cycle, the Frederick County Board of Education voted to increase class size. This resulted in a reduction of an estimated 80 teaching positions.
Hartsock said the state did not fund any of the mandates associated with the law, though some of the state’s contribution to each school district is based on enrollment figures.
Staff has worked to prepare for the coming year, Hartsock said, and FCPS has, over time, diversified its options for classes. For example, the school system implemented dual enrollment, a program that allows students to register and earn credit in college-level courses. Such classes are taught either at their high school or on a college campus, the most popular being Frederick Community College.
Students who wish to drop out at age 16 typically cite a lack of interest in school as the reason, Hartsock said. Dual enrollment, or classes within the Career and Technology Center, Hartsock said, can typically capture the interest of students entertaining the idea of dropping out.
Hartsock identified 189 students who had dropped out during the 2014-15 school year, an uptick from roughly 140 from the academic year before. Hartsock speculated that the jump related to the fact that students knew of the change in the law — FCPS has been telling them about it since at least 2013.
“So that may factor into it, you know. They say, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this in the future, so I’m getting out now,’” she said.
The goal of the 2012 law was student retention, with the understanding that many who drop out cannot reach the same career heights and success as their peers.
A student expressing interest in leaving school will meet with the administration and school counselors at his or her school, as well as the pupil personnel worker, a liaison between the school system and families who also handles matters of truancy.
Staff at each respective school will attempt to dissuade the student, Hartsock said — the PPW will be heavily involved in the later stages — but sometimes, they aren’t successful.
Often the students who wish to drop out are the ones who have fallen behind in high school credits, said Kathleen Schlappal, director of high schools.
Staff, especially teachers, those on the front lines, can usually identify early which students may be more at risk and can cater to them. Schlappal said many layers of support exist, and proudly noted the low dropout rate in Frederick County. State data indicate the dropout rate for the Class of 2014 was just below 4 percent, and the state average comes in at roughly 8 percent.
“We can tell them not to give up yet,” she said. “They can’t drop [out] until [age] 17, and that’s good because it doesn’t give them the opportunity to exercise the independent judgment.”
At Urbana High School, Principal Jay Berno said a one-on-one conversation between the student and him is the last-ditch effort before a student will make a final choice. Sometimes the student will agree to meet with Berno, and other times he might trek to the student’s home.
Of the five or six such conversations he’s had in the four years he has been principal at Urbana, about half have been successful, he said.
Before this, a student likely will have talked over dropping out with a parent. A school counselor or school psychologist might meet with the student individually. Then, if the alternatives suggested by the counselor don’t interest the student — for instance, attending the county’s virtual high school to make up credits — a team that meets weekly will make it a priority to keep the child from dropping out, Berno said. The team is composed of the school administration, the PPW, school counselors, a school psychologist and others.
Berno doesn’t sugarcoat anything in his final conversation with the student, but he tries to establish some trust, especially if he doesn’t know the student well. Berno will ask: In a competitive, global marketplace, what skills could he or she offer that would be attractive for prospective employers?
Often, the student hems and haws, but can’t answer.
“What you do is plant a seed, an idea,” he said. “Because once they go down that road, there’s nothing there.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of students that dropped out during the school year prior to 2014-15.