In North Carolina and 21 other states kids only have to go to school till they’re sixteen years old. But next year Hickory and Newton-Conover Schools will raise the dropout age to eighteen.
That sixteen year old dropout age harkens back to another time when you could easily get a good-paying job in a furniture factory or textile mill without a high school diploma.
“That’s drastically changed. A kid drops out of school at 16 today, with rare exception, there aren’t any satisfactory jobs available,” says Jerry Phillips, a retired businessman in Hickory.
He led the push to raise the dropout age to 18 with the thought that it would give kids a better chance of graduating and landing a good job. He took this idea to the superintendents of local districts. Hickory Public Schools Superintendent Walter Hart thought it was a good one.
“We would be sending the very clear signal to parents and students that it’s simply not acceptable for a 17 or 18 year-old person to not be in school, unless they’ve already graduated from high school,” says Hart.
Newton-Conover Schools also signed on. This past summer, state lawmakers gave those districts the flexibility to raise the dropout age to 18.
“It’s an important symbolic and practical step, but in and of itself it’s not enough,” says Robert Balfanz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies how to keep kids from dropping out of school.
“Many, many kids drop out because they’re not succeeding in school and schools aren’t organized to help them succeed,” says Balfanz. “So, if we just increase the age, those students are still going to struggle and, legal or not, they will probably still stop coming to school. Even if they don’t officially drop out, they’ll be absent so much that they’ll drop out in practice.”
Balfanz says districts that have had success keeping these kids from dropping out, use a range of strategies. They include closely monitoring students who are just starting to struggle or miss classes and give them extra support. They also do a good job of showing kids how what they’re learning can be turned into careers after school.
Hart says Hickory Public Schools has taken other steps to keep kids in school like starting a program where kids can take classes after hours. He says the plan going forward includes more than just raising the dropout age to keep kids in school.
“We might need some additional social support. They may need some additional alternative learning opportunities and, in those cases, it is possible that the district could incur some additional costs,” says Hart.
Dropouts under the age of 18 in Hickory and Newton-Conover districts will face the same penalties that the current law holds for kids who drop out under the age of 16. That includes losing driving privileges. Guardians of early dropouts can also be charged with a misdemeanor.