JUNEAU -- Some are so far behind they can't see a way to the finish. Some feel bullied at school and are scared to go. Some stay home to take care of younger siblings while parents work.
Struggling Alaska students drop out in astonishing numbers, and the state allows it once they turn 16.
A bill now in the state Senate aims to raise the age that kids must be in school. Senate Bill 9 had its first hearing Monday. A similar bill died in the last Legislature.
Both were sponsored by Sen. Bettye Davis, an Anchorage Democrat and retired social worker.
The bill would require kids to start school by age 6 and stay in through age 17. Current law says kids must attend from age 7 through 15. The change for younger children is a formality, Davis said. Young children already are starting by age 5 or 6 to attend kindergarten.
The problem is at the other end. Too many quit at age 16 or 17, not anticipating the lost opportunities that may result.
"It's not a magic bullet to heal all the ills that we have, but it's one of the tools in the toolbox that we need," Davis said in Monday's hearing before the Senate Education Committee.
Legislators, teachers and school district leaders have long been frustrated by Alaska's high dropout rates. Davis says she wants to raise the school attendance age as part of larger reforms that do more to motivate rather than alienate students on the edge.
LONG A PRIORITY
Many educators love the idea, but some parents have been skeptical, worried that troubled students forced to stay in school will only disrupt classes for others.
Davis said students who don't fit into the regular classrooms could be reached in other ways, by hands-on vocational classes or through an alternative school. Serious troublemakers could be suspended or expelled.
Raising the school attendance age has been a legislative priority of the Anchorage School District for years, said Superintendent Carol Comeau.
"No. 1, we think it's too young for a kid to make a decision that is that potentially life changing at 16," Comeau said. Some teens quit school thinking they'll join the military, but the Army generally requires a regular high school diploma, or a G.E.D. with college credits, said Capt. Francisco Jaume, commander of the recruiting company for the Army in Alaska.
"That's a real misconception," he said.
Those who get in with a G.E.D. are limited to the most basic Army jobs, such as infantry positions, he said.
HIGHER AGES IN MOST STATES
Alaska attendance age dates to territorial days when many students quit after eighth grade and fewer jobs required a high school diploma, Davis's office said.
Twenty states require students to attend school until they turn 18 and 11 more set the cutoff age at 17. Alaska is among 19 states that let students quit on their 16th birthday.
Laury Scandling, assistant superintendent of the Juneau School District, has spent years teaching in or overseeing programs to reach kids at risk of dropping out. She told legislators that she has always refused to sign dropout papers for a teen wanting to quit. The state shouldn't make it easy for kids to quit, she said.
The Association of Alaska School Boards backs the bill, too, said executive director Carl Rose.
But would this make a difference? Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, asked.
The educators said it would.
Students aren't dropping out because standards are too high, Scandling said. They leave because they aren't connected to school, because they feel invisible, because the curriculum isn't relevant. Anchorage is trying to address that with graduation coaches, who identify students at risk of dropping out and work with a team to keep them in, Comeau said.
Gov. Sean Parnell hasn't taken a position on the bill but generally prefers incentives, such as the scholarship program he backed last year, rather than mandates, his spokeswoman said. In the last school year, about 1,400 Alaska students between the ages of 16 and 18 dropped out, according to the state Department of Education. It would cost nearly $15 million a year to keep them in school, the department says.
Maybe, says Davis. But dropouts already cost society, she said. If more money is spent on educating the students, she said, fewer will be absorbed by prisons and social services.
By LISA DEMER