CHICAGO – Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today signed a series of bills aimed at helping more Illinois students complete high school. The package, championed by Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), addresses the state dropout rate, which is hovering at 5%, by raising the age at which students are legally allowed to dropout and keeping better track of students at risk of dropping out.
“The dropout rate in Illinois is alarming. By signing these new laws, we will hold schools more accountable to their struggling students, hopefully leading to more students staying in school,” said Gov. Blagojevich. “I commend Sen. del Valle for all of his efforts to keep Illinois students in school and off the streets.”
High school graduates have much higher earning potential than high school dropouts. This legislative package aims to increase graduation rates across the state by providing more options for students. The Manhattan Institute’s November 2002 study found that, while Illinois’ graduation rate of 77% was higher than the national average of 69%, the state’s African-American and Latino students had only a 57% graduation rate. Graduation and dropout rates are inextricably linked.
“These new measures will have a dramatic impact on the dropout rates in the State of Illinois, particularly the Hispanic and African American communities,” said Sen. del Valle. “I believe we will begin to see an immediate reduction in the dropout rate in the State of Illinois as a result of these new laws.”
The 2000 U.S. Census found more than 200,000 people in Illinois between the ages 16 and 24, dropped out of high school. The report also found in Illinois, one out of every two Latinos and one out of every five African Americans in the 16 to 24 age-range is a high school dropout. In the 2001-2002 school year, 17,400 students – more than 17 percent – dropped out of Chicago Public Schools.
Senate Bill 2918, sponsored by Sen. del Valle and Rep. William Delgado (D-Chicago), raises the minimum drop out age from 16 years old to 17 years old – giving parents and schools an additional year and additional opportunities to keep students in the classroom.
The new law requires students who have received three truant notices to perform 20 to 40 hours of community service over a period of 90 days. If after performing community service, a student continues to be truant, the truant officer or the regional superintendent of schools (in the case of a district with no truant officer) has two options – make a complaint to the state’s attorney against the person who has custody of the student, or conduct a truancy mediation and encourage the student to enroll in a graduation incentives program. Anyone under the age of 18 is eligible for graduation incentives programs if he or she is considered a dropout, has been suspended or expelled, is pregnant or is a parent, has been assessed as chemically dependent or is enrolled in a bilingual education or LEP program.
The new law also expands the graduation incentives program for students at risk of dropping out, inviting school-based programs, vocational education programs, community college classes, GED preparation courses and career training run by private businesses to provide additional options for students not succeeding in traditional schools. In addition, pupils enrolled in such programs are eligible for reimbursement, subject to appropriations.
Senate Bill 2769, sponsored by Sen. del Valle and Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), requires that students take the Prairie State Achievement Exam in order to receive their high school diploma. By requiring that all students take the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which includes the ACT exam (a college entrance test), the state will gain a better picture of how students are performing academically. In addition, this may open the door to new opportunities for students who may not otherwise have taken the exam. There are several exceptions to the requirement, including students with Individualized Learning Plans (special education), English language learners and students in adult education programs.
Senate Bill 3109, sponsored by Sen. del Valle and Rep. Richard Bradley (D-Chicago), takes steps to better track Illinois dropouts and hold schools more accountable for all of their students. SB 3109 requires the Illinois State Board of Education to set up a system to provide accurate tracking of dropouts. The legislation requires that students be counted as dropouts from their former schools until the former school receives a proof of transfer from the new school. Official notice must be received by the school that the student has left within 150 days after the date the student withdrew or the student will be counted as a dropout.
This bill comes in response to a recent national education survey conducted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research group in Washington D.C. The study found that Illinois’ largest school districts seriously inflate their high school graduation rates – with the largest sources of graduation rate inflation stemming from how districts define and report their transfer students. In fact, the survey found some school districts counted all students who left their schools as transfers, regardless of whether there was proof the students re-enrolled at other schools.
Senate Bill 2115, signed by Governor Blagojevich last month, will make it easer for high school dropouts to re-enter the classroom. The new law, which was sponsored by Sen. del Valle and Rep. Delgado, outlines academic and attendance standards under which a district can deny enrollment to students; however, the bill limits that denial to one semester. The law comes in response to criticism that districts are “pushing out” low-achieving students in order to produce higher test scores. The new law protects a student’s right to re-enroll. It also provides protection for schools to accept re-enrolled students by ensuring students that re-enroll and then drop out again are not double-counted in the school’s drop-out statistics. Since graduation rates, directly related to dropout rates, are counted as part of a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB, this measure is important to school leaders.
“We need to do everything we can to decrease the dropout rate in Illinois,” said Sen. del Valle. “We owe it to our school children to make sure they are receiving every opportunity to succeed and complete their high school education.”