Chang-Díaz targets dropout rate

February 18, 2011
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Legislation aimed at reducing the dropout rate in Boston Public Schools and across the state is topping State Sen. Sonia. Chang-Díaz’s legislative agenda as she heads into her second term representing the 2nd Suffolk District on Beacon Hill.

The dropout legislation leads a full agenda for the senator—a former high school teacher who was recently named chair of the senate’s Education Committee. Her agenda also includes over a half-dozen other items, including proposals to increase minority hiring, close corporate tax loopholes and codify civil rights protections for transgender people. [See Sidebar.]

“Statewide, 10,000 students are dropping out annually,” Chang-Díaz said in a Gazette phone interview last week, “If we don’t do something about it, in 10 years…these kids are not going to be prepared to be self-sufficient participants in a democratic society.”

According to BPS figures, since 2006, about 60 percent of BPS students graduate from high school in four years. About 15 percent of students scheduled to graduate between 2006 and 2009 dropped out of high school, the report says.

“It blows me away,” she said, noting that high school dropouts are more likely to become tax burdens—including through incarceration, which costs $45,000 a year per inmate, she said.

“One of the underlying concepts of this bill is that people don’t just fade away. They stay in the city. They become involved with the judicial system prison system, or they end up receiving public assistance. They stay in our communities and we have to deal with that,” she said.

Chang-Díaz’s bill—one of several pieces of proposed dropout reduction legislation filed so far this year—follows massive reform effort aimed at improving underperforming schools the state undertook last year.

The legislation includes four key proposals. One would force employers to give parents of school-aged children 24 hours a year off to participate in their children’s’ education. Another would create a program that would match students who are identified in eighth grade as being at-risk of dropping out with one-on-one “graduation coaches.”

Third, the bill calls for a pilot expansion of an early warning system that currently identifies eighth-graders who are at risk of dropping out. The pilot expansion would determine the effectiveness of a similar program for third-graders. “Third grade is key for the acquisition of reading skills,” Chang-Díaz said.

Finally, a provision calls for the reform of standards for suspension and expulsion across the state. Male students of color are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than other students, Chang-Díaz said, and being suspended or expelled is a “strong risk factor” for not finishing high school.

“There are a whole range of disciplinary actions” that might be more effective than suspension or expulsion, she said. “In school additional time requirements, community service, mediation—it depends on the nature of the offense. We just want to makes sure schools are not using [suspension and expulsion] as a first resort.”

For students who are being expelled, the legislation would require schools to provide them with a list of alternative education options.

Chang-Díaz told the Gazette that hers is one of many proposals being filed to curb the student dropout rate this year, and that she is confident that legislation on the dropout rate will pass this year.

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