Monday, September 17, 2007

A way to drop back in school

Texas is now paying up if districts will allow young adults another chance to get a diploma

By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE / Houston Chronicle
September 14, 2007

A sweeping reform designed to curb Texas' high dropout rate could give students at some high schools an extra five years to earn their diplomas.

Under the new law, school districts that enroll students who were older than 21, but younger than 26 as of Sept. 1 can collect an average of $30 per student, per day. That funding level previously applied only for students under 21.

"There are a lot of kids that leave, for good or bad reason, during their teenage years and then realize as young adults that they really need that diploma," said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who sponsored the legislation in this year's session. "It's really all about the person who wants to come back to school."

Some national research indicates that up to 45 percent of the Houston school district's students fail to graduate from high school in four years.

The law means that Texas now has the highest upper age limit among states that specifically cap the age of traditional public school students.

Most states set the limit at 22. Washington, D.C., and Vermont don't cap students' ages and a few other states don't address upper age limits in their laws, according to the Education Commission of the States. The commission is a Denver-based nonprofit group.

"Bless their hearts for making accommodations for students to come back," Kathy Christie, a vice president with the commission, said of Texas lawmakers.

The law doesn't obligate districts to enroll older students. Nor does it affect the cutoff age for special-education students, who are eligible for service until age 22.

Districts that choose to enroll older students are not required to continue serving those who become discipline problems. And the law requires them to keep older students who have been out of school for three or more years separate from students who are 18 or younger.

Helps older immigrants

Officials with the Houston Independent School District said they are thrilled about the change, which was designed to help students such as the older immigrants who attend Liberty High School, formerly called the Newcomers Charter School.

The HISD board of trustees adopted a policy Thursday allowing the district to take advantage of the law. The district already was footing the bill for some older students to get their diplomas.

"We'll be able to expand the scope of the folks we're able to serve," Liberty High principal Monico Rivas said. "I think it's going to have a significant impact on helping members of the community continue to reach their goals."

Eighteen of Liberty High's nearly 200 students are at least 22, including Abraham Velasquez, who will be 23 when he graduates in May.

Velasquez, who sells fertilizer by day, said he's grateful to have the chance to attend night classes.

"High school diplomas are very important," said Velasquez, who quit school to work as a 14-year-old in Guatemala. "Without that, you can't do anything. You don't have many chances to have a better job."

'This is a big chance'

Once he has his diploma, he said, he hopes to study to be a nurse, or maybe even a doctor.

"It's not easy, but this is a big chance that they're giving us," said Velasquez, who attends classes on Saturdays and from 5 p.m. to at least 10 p.m. on weekdays.

Alief school district officials said they are enrolling some older students in a new night-school program that began this year. Students are selected on the basis of their desire and past academic performance.

"We have some 21-year-olds who are like ninth-graders," said Rodney Johnson, principal of the S.O.A.R. Evening High School program.

"A kid that is a dropout is not necessarily not intelligent. Life challenges happen to everyone; they just happen to these kids sooner. We have to remove the barriers."

Starting out small

Galena Park is creating a TAKS tutorial program for older students who still haven't passed the exit-level exam, but officials there don't yet plan a full-fledged high school program, said Elizabeth Lalor, director of research, district compliance and special projects.

"We're trying to start small and see how it goes," she said.

Lalor said the district probably will need to enroll at least six students in each of its four classes to cover the cost of the certified teachers. That doesn't include the expense of the utilities and security needed to keep the campuses open late.

"Some districts might not be biting on this tortilla right now," Lalor said. "It's a tough job. It's not a moneymaker, by any means. It's an opportunity."

$1.7 million estimated cost
State officials said there's no way to know how many districts or students will take advantage of the law.

Last year, when districts had to cover the cost, Texas enrolled 259 non-special-education students age 21 and older.

Under the new law, officials say, those numbers could grow exponentially. They have estimated that the change will cost Texas about $1.7 million a year.

"It's a win for the districts because they can recover more students and it provides funding," Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. "It's a win for the students, who will, hopefully, take advantage of this and complete their diplomas."


$30 - The amount school districts can now collect, per day, for students older than 21 but younger than 26

22 - The age limit most states set for students

18 - Number of Liberty High's nearly 200 students who are at least 22

$1.7 million - Estimated cost, per year, for Texas under new law

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