Dropout age change worrisome

Jon Williams was behind in credits at Western High School and knew he wasn't going to make up the work on time to graduate with his classmates.

So instead of sticking it out at Western to catch up on health credits dating back to his freshman year, he enrolled in an adult education program this summer. Now he's on pace to graduate early, in January.

But the option to guide struggling 17-year-old students such as Williams in the Clark County School District to adult education classes instead of keeping them at traditional high schools might soon end.

A new state law passed during the 2007 Legislature increased the age students are legally allowed to drop out of high school to 18 from 17. At least one top state education official said his interpretation of the law is that students who haven't completed their graduation requirements must stay in traditional high schools until 18.

That law has adult education advocates warning that the Legislature's attempt to keep students in school might actually have the opposite effect, and lead to more dropouts or force the students to attend traditional high school an extra year.

"Not everybody fits into a traditional school setting," said Sandra Ransel, principal of the district's Desert Rose Adult High School and Career Center. "The decision to leave high school is a very personal decision. Every kid has a different story. Adult high fills a niche."

About a third of all students who graduated from Desert Rose last school year were 17, Ransel said.

State schools Superintendent Keith Rheault said he is supportive of the new law. But while the district is still enrolling students who are 17 at Desert Rose, Rheault said that practice might soon change.

"We're still working through to see how the new law will affect the district," Rheault said. "What I take from the intent (of the law) is that legislators wanted to keep kids at high schools for a year longer, before their final option, an adult (education) diploma."

Desert Rose, the only adult school in the district, offers classes for 12 hours a day to students 17 and older. Students can earn an Adult Standard Diploma, which is certified by the state.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, the main sponsor for the new law, said it was her understanding that the law still would allow 17-year-old students to attend adult education programs and alternative schools.

"This does not say that students have to be in a traditional high school," Parnell said. "What we're concerned about is students are in school until they get their diploma or GED."

Parnell said she's worried that some people think the law at least partially closes the door to students who want to enroll in adult education programs.

"If that's the case, we need to look at that and do something about it," Parnell said.

District statistics indicate that some students are dropping out long before they reach 17.

During the 2005-06 school year, 3,543 students dropped out between their freshman and junior years of high school. During that same year, 1,007 middle school students dropped out.

The new law does allow students who have completed their high school credit requirements to graduate before the age of 18.

District officials don't believe the law will affect the district's dropout and graduation rates, which were 5.9 percent and 60.1 percent in the 2005-06 school year.

Like Parnell, some view keeping students in school an additional year as a positive move.

"It's one more hurdle they have to get past before they drop out," said Joyce Haldeman, the district's executive director of community and government relations.

But there are no assurances the students and their parents will follow the new law. Also, the state is not allocating any additional resources to enforce it.

Michelle Memapan, 18, said she was in and out of high school when she lived in Torrance, Calif. She moved to Las Vegas in December and recently enrolled at Desert Rose.

She said it's her experience that some students just don't succeed in a traditional high school. She hopes the law won't keep students like her from having the option of alternative programs such as adult education.

"Students will drop out with no way of catching up," she said.