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April 9, 2011

Area educators: taking driver's licenses won't help dropout rate

Area school officials say a state House bill that would take away driver's licenses from students who drop out or miss too much school is a good incentive, but it would not address the root problems of why those students are not in school.

Area school officials say a state House bill that would take away driver's licenses from students who drop out or miss too much school is a good incentive, but it would not address the root problems of why those students are not in school.

Whenever there is a chance a student might drop out, Clover High School principal Mark Hopkins meets with the student.

He said many factors lead to the student's decision to drop out, including a lack of motivation, low expectations, being behind on credit, missing too much class or the inability to be engaged.

When Hopkins meets with a student, he tries to have the parent present so he can determine what kind of family support the student has.

"I also try to lay out what it means to have a high school diploma and how important that document is," Hopkins said. "I talk about the differences between a diploma and a GED and dropping out altogether.

"The objective is to get them to really think about the ramifications of that decision and to let them know that they're making a life decision at age 17 without really understanding what it means."

Even if he can change the mind of only one out of every 10 students, he'll be satisfied, he said. But, he remains "a little skeptical" of the driver's license bill.

"I love the way it sounds, the fact that there is some repercussion to not going to school," he said, "But it's deeper than that. There's a deeper reason they don't want to come to school. ...

"We've got to figure out what makes them want to drop out and prevent that decision."

'Unintended' results

Hopkins' skepticism was echoed by officials in other districts.

Harriet Jaworoski, associate superintendent of instruction for Rock Hill schools, questioned the "unintended consequences" of taking away a student's license could have.

"They may be students in a family where the student has to work for the family to survive," she said. "There may be situations where that's necessary for them to do what they need to do in terms of school and activities."

Jaworowski pointed to a 1997 study called America's Process that outlined the four main reasons that students drop out: They are pushed out, fade out, fall out or choose out.

"While a driver's license might be a nice incentive, it doesn't address any of those reasons," she said.

School officials also wondered how the reporting process for such a bill, if it were implemented, would be organized.

York Superintendent Vernon Prosser said, in the management sense, the state would probably have to look into the number of South Carolina students and determine who would be maintaining records and to whom the schools would report their student dropouts.

The basic concept of the bill, he said, is the importance of keeping students in schools. Prosser cited statistics showing that soon about 20 percent of jobs will require a 4-year college degree and 65 percent a 2-year degree or advanced training.

"With just a high school diploma, it's going to be awfully difficult to compete in a job market," he said. "That's where school districts have to really look at programs that meet the needs of students. One of our goals is extra time and extra help for students. We really believe with extra time and extra help, all students can be successful.

"Sometimes it takes more than 180 days to master a concept."

Prosser said he'd like to see the state fund the extra time concept so student dropouts can continue their education through other options.

Need other incentives

Sheila Huckabee, associate superintendent for Clover schools, noted that age 16 is when educators begin to notice a potential lack of interest in going to school.

"They're trying to decide, 'How long do I have put in time here before I can officially quit?'" she said. "They're just counting down the days."

Any kind of incentive that could make a student begin the conversation of, "Do I want to do this?" is nice, but there need to be other incentives, she said.

"Their driver's licenses and their ability to be mobile and autonomous, that's real to them," she said. "It's never going to be enough by itself, but it helps us have a real, relevant consequence so that we can still do some of the other positive things that we need to get them connected."

Students weigh in

Some students say they see the benefit of such a bill.

South Pointe High junior Trevor Mullinax, 17, said he agreed with the idea.

"It'll make a lot of people want to graduate, not because they have to, but so they can keep their licenses," he said.

"If students have to go somewhere (and they don't have a license), it puts more stress on their parents."

South Pointe classmate Asha Kumar, 17, said she considers driving a privilege.

"You have to have a high school diploma to get a good job and make money," she said. "Better education means more money, and you need a license to get to places."

Students need the motivation, said Dalton Ballard, 17, who is home-schooled, and decreasing the dropout rates would make the state look better.

North Carolina and Georgia have implemented similar laws in recent years. The number of North Carolina students who dropped out was at a record low for the 2009-2010 school year, according to the state's Department of Education website. The dropout rate decreased to 3.75 percent from 4.27 percent, with 70 percent of all schools showing such a decrease.

However, Sara Clark, a public information specialist with the department, said no study has been conducted to determine if that decrease can be attributed only or completely to that bill.

"There are so many factors that could contribute to decreases in the dropout rate and increasing graduation rate ... that we haven't been able to go on record to say that it's definitely been a factor," she said.

Georgia schools also had seen an increase in their graduation rates, according to reports, but there was no mention of the driver's license law contributing to that.

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