High school graduation.  I know.  I know.  It is advertised as this pure moment of glory.  When I was a high school principal, it was joyous to be sure but I also knew that:

  • I would mispronounce at least one kid’s name and then incur the wrath of a parent.
  • At least one award would not get mentioned and then I would incur the wrath of another parent.
  • At least one senior would do something inappropriate on stage; I would have to take action; and, then, yes, I would incur the wrath of another parent.

In other words, graduation for any high school principal is a mixed bag.  A sense of accomplishment and promise as young people move on.  A sense of dread because of the invariable soap operas that occur at such events.

Just as graduation is a mixed bag, so is the recent piece of legislation to increase mandatory school attendance to the age of 18. The bill gives school districts throughout Kentucky the discretion to raise the high school dropout age to 18 starting in the 2014-2015 school year. After 55 percent of school districts choose to raise the dropout age to 18 from the current requirement of 16, the policy will become mandatory statewide four years after the threshold is met.

It is a major win for kids to ensure they stay in school until age 18. The law must also be implemented well for it to achieve its purpose of helping more children become prepared for a successful transition to adulthood.

Senator Givens needs to be commended for leading this piece of policy change through the choppy waters of the General Assembly during 2013.  And both the Governor and First Lady merit our thanks for their persistent commitment to keep the issue at play for several years.

The idea of raising the graduation age actually emanated from the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children several years ago, so we at Kentucky Youth Advocates have supported — and continue to support — the idea.  A cursory look at the history of mandatory school attendance, a comparison of age requirements in surrounding states, and common sense all suggested that it was time for Kentucky to join the 21st century and ensure that young people simply don’t have the option to dropout at age 16.  Increasing the mandatory age of attendance does decrease the dropout rate.

This is a good idea for young people’s today and for their tomorrows.

But let’s be clear – schools need to address the challenges that this piece of legislation represents to prevent this policy from becoming a mixed bag of good and bad as is any high school graduation ceremony.  And what are those challenges?

It boils down to relevance.  Simply put, THE common denominator for successful students is relevance. In order to keep kids engaged at school, they need to find it relevant. For the young person who is college-bound, the relevance may be those advanced placement courses that are both earning college credit and scholarship money.  For the young person who wants to be an auto technician, the relevance may be taking vocational/technical classes and learning what it takes to be a successful small business owner.  For the young person who is in a model alternative education program, the relevance may come from receiving an education that is tailored to fit his or her learning needs.

In many ways, the raised age requirement represents a crossroads.  When that 17-year-old student cuts school multiple times, do we address truancy by sending the student to the courts — where locking youth up is the end result all too frequently these days? Or do we utilize diversion programs that address the core reasons why students skip school?  When that other 17-year-old student acts out in the classroom due to frustration and underperforming, do we warehouse him in an alternative program that is little more than a detention center? Or do we invent more alternative programs that offer fresh starts, academic rigor and rich relationships?   And what about the brightest of students who are bored beyond belief in traditional high school learning environments?  Can we extend more dual credit opportunities; offer creative learning opportunities; and personalize secondary school into a rigorous exercise of intellect?

The raised age of mandatory attendance holds some legitimate concerns, but it holds even more promise.  But that promise can only be realized by intentional changes in practices and dramatic increases in options to ensure that every young person finds relevance in those later teen years.  Recent improvements for alternative education programs and the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force hold promise for ensuring thoughtful implementation of an increased school age requirement. If these efforts pan out, that mixed bag becomes a big win for Kentucky’s young people!