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Area school leaders cautious on raising dropout age

President Obama’s call for all states to raise their minimum dropout age to 18 is drawing a cautious response from area school leaders, who warn that forcing students to stay in school longer will not by itself solve the state’s dropout issues.

“I do think it’s certainly worth doing,’’ Revere School Superintendent Paul Dakin said of raising the dropout age in Massachusetts. “I would love to be able to keep those kids in school. But getting them back involves resources in the form of people who can pull them back in and people who can give them guidance and direction when they’re here.’’

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Chelsea School Superintendent Mary Bourque said she is concerned with legislating an increase in the dropout age “without thinking out the impact and how it should be done, and providing the safety nets to school districts that we will have to have to implement this. There has to be an increased funding stream for all the work that this entails.’’

In making his pitch in his Jan. 24 State of the Union address, Obama said that “when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.’’

Haverhill School Superintendent James Scully said he sees some merit in raising the dropout age in Massachusetts, “but in many of our high schools we don’t have the funding to address that segment of the population. That needs to be attended to.’’

Scully said he believes his district could keep in school 50 percent of current dropouts with enough funding, and through initiatives such as a partnership it is now developing with Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School to design programs for students who would not ordinarily qualify for enrollment in that school.

Currently, the dropout age is 18 in 21 states - including New Hampshire and Rhode Island - and 17 in 11 other states. Massachusetts is among 18 states where the age remains at 16, according to Education Week magazine.

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In Massachusetts, three bills that would raise the state’s dropout age from 16 to 18 are before the Legislature’s education committee, as are two local measures that would raise the dropout age to 18 in Lawrence and Boston.

The education committee is drafting a comprehensive dropout prevention bill, and as part of it is considering setting the statewide dropout age at 18.

In 2010-11, the statewide dropout rate was 2.7 percent, which officials said was the lowest level in two decades. But the rates in some communities far exceeded the state figure. In Lawrence, for example, the district dropout rate was 8.6 percent, in Haverhill 6.9 percent, in Chelsea 5.8 percent, and in Everett 5 percent.

Paul Reville, the Massachusetts education secretary, said in a telephone interview that the administration “supports raising the mandatory attendance age to 18 if it’s accompanied by a variety of programs and supports to ensure that an increased age will actually result in increased school attendance.’’

“Our concern is that just raising the age alone is kind of a hollow gesture,’’ Reville said, citing research that found that in states that raised the age without building in a “system of support and enforcement of the new regulations,’’ the change had a negligible effect on student attendance.

Reville said that it would be very difficult for the state to identify funding for the programs that would be needed, but he is hopeful federal funds may become available.

The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents supports raising the dropout rate to 18 “but only if funding follows the mandate,’’ said Paul Andrews, the group’s director of professional development and government service.

Andrews, a retired Woburn school superintendent, said districts would need money to fund support programs to keep students in school.

“More programs means more teachers for which they don’t have the funding,’’ he said, noting that some districts will also need help to provide facilities for the programs.

“It makes no sense raising the dropout age unless there’s going to be support systems for these kids,’’ said Everett School Superintendent Frederick Foresteire. “If we raise the age without support, they are just going to become more of a discipline problem or not come to school anyway.’’

He said the support programs would include providing students with reading and English as a second language instruction, and with counselors to help those who are experiencing problems at home.

Salem School Superintendent Stephen Russell said his district is already working to keep students in school and regain those who have left, including opening a charter school this year that targets students who were once dropouts.

“Raising the dropout age to 18 is a step in the right direction,’’ Russell said. “But I’m also realistic knowing that we need resources to support those efforts.’’

Malden School Superintendent David DeRuosi said Malden has also taken the initiative on dropout prevention, in part by creating an alternative program at the high school “for students who just might not fit into the traditional high school model.’’

Raising the dropout age to 18 would increase the number of students needing such programs, DeRuosi said, and that would require more resources.

“I wish every kid would stay with us, because the value of that education in today’s day and age is priceless,’’ DeRuosi said. “But it’s not just a matter of everyone stays in school until they are 18. You have to look at how to get them back in, [and] where are the social and emotional resources for us to help the students. There’s a lot that goes into the discussion.’’

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com

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