Senate Committee Approves Programs Aimed at Curbing School Dropout Rates

Aug. 22, 2007 — The National Guard youth challenge program act and the dropout prevention act of 2007, two bills aimed at increasing high school graduation rates in the territory, were approved Monday in Frederiksted by the Legislature’s Committee on Education, Culture and Youth.
Now the bills will go to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, and if passed there, to the full Legislature. Officials from Education, Human Services, the National Guard and the Police Department were asked to testify and offer their input on the bills and on the issue of dropout prevention. Committee Chairman Liston Davis also let community members who came to the hearing give testimony for or against the bills.
According to information provided to the committee by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, in 2004 slightly more than 41 percent of V.I. residents age 18 and 19 did not have a high school diploma. More men drop out than women.
The first bill, the National Guard youth challenge program act, would bring the territory into a national program, joining 25 other states and territories that have such Guard-run schools. The school would be called the Challenge Academy and would be a voluntary, co-educational, 17-month program for 16- to 18-year-old high school dropouts. It consists of a five-and-a-half month quasi-military phase, during which students would live on base or in National Guard dormitories, followed by a full year of post-residential classes.
Students have to meet the minimum requirements for a general educational development degree (GED). If they do, they can receive a GED. Others who complete the program but do not receive a GED would improve their skills in math and language and receive a certificate of completion. The program would be financed 60 percent by federal funds and 40 percent with local funds and in-kind contributions.
The Education Committee sent this bill out previously, but in June the Rules and Judiciary Committee sent it back to be rewritten.
Human Services Commissioner Chris Finch spoke supportively of the youth challenge program, noting that more than 7,000 students were currently enrolled nationwide and, over the 14-year life of the program, 43,000 students have received a GED or diploma. Other good has come from the program, too. While nearly half of the program’s enrollees had been on the wrong side of the legal system in the year prior to enrolling, less than one percent were incarcerated within one year of completing the residential part of the program, Finch said.
Reducing dropout rates will save money in the long run, he argued.
“According to a 1982 study, one dollar spent on early-childhood programs — individualized to the child, and requiring parental involvement — saves seven dollars on incarceration and other costs,” Finch said.
Incarceration and dropping out are linked, he said.
“Nationally, 75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates are high-school dropouts,” he said. “High school dropouts are three-and-a-half times more likely than graduates to be incarcerated. In 2001, 55 percent of young adult dropouts were employed, compared to 74 percent of high school graduates and 87 percent of college graduates.”
Dropouts contribute to state and federal tax coffers at about half the rate of graduates, and reducing the dropout rate would both increase revenues and lower government expenses, he added.
“Studies suggest the U.S. would save $41.8 billion in health-care costs if the 600,000 young people who dropped out in 2004 were to complete one additional year of education,” Finch said. “If a third of dropouts graduated, the federal government would save $10.8 billion each year in food stamps, housing assistance and temporary assistance for needy families.”
The Education Department is for reducing dropouts, but does not want the program to have the ability to grant high school diplomas, said Lauren Larsen, deputy commissioner for curriculum and instruction. He is also concerned the program may increase the dropout rate, and may compete with Education for funding.
“We have no objection to the National Guard having the ability to issue a GED,” Larsen said. “We, however, are not in favor of having the National Guard issue high school diplomas to participants meeting the requirements of the GED programs. We are concerned that a policy such as this may encourage many of our young people to leave high school with a plan to obtain an equivalency certificate. … GED policies must not make it easier for high school students to drop out.”
The youth challenge program act is sponsored by Sens. Louis Patrick Hill, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Neville A. James, Ronald E. Russell and Carmen M. Wesselhoft.
The second act, the dropout prevention act of 2007, urges the Education Department to establish a variety of programs, including youth service, disciplinary and alternative-education programs, aimed at increasing high school graduation. It is sponsored by Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Usie R. Richards.
“Each district may establish one or more alternative programs for dropout prevention,” reads the relevant portion of the bill. The Education Department is asked to present plans for such programs to the Legislature, along with funding requests. These would be in addition to existing programs.
Mary Moorhead of Frederiksted spoke as a private citizen, saying she supported efforts to reduce dropouts, but arguing that resources should be channeled to existing programs.
“I have a problem when we have a Positive Connections program that for years I’ve been hearing the cries of faculty and staff for funding,” Moorhead said. “They have been housed in a condemned building for all these years. … That kind of treatment affects children and makes them drop out. … We have a lot of existing programs that need funding that can do the same things these programs are designed to do.”
Both bills passed without dissent. Voting in favor were Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Neville A. James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Liston A. Davis and Terrence “Positive” Nelson. Absent were Sens. Carlton “Ital” Dowe and Louis Patrick Hill. The bills now go to Rules and Judiciary with a recommendation for passage.
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