From “Obama’s call for older dropout age already reality in Wisconsin” — Local educators had no cause to bristle when President Obama called for states to keep students in high school until age 18 in his annual address to Congress earlier this week.

Even though most states let students drop out at 16 or 17, Wisconsin is one of the exceptions. Students in the La Crosse area – and the rest of the state – must stay in school through their 18th birthday.

But changing the law can only do so much, and local educators say the key to keeping students interested in school is with active support.

“You can’t just say we’re going to change the graduation rate or the exit age and expect things to get better,” said Fran Finco, superintendent for the Onalaska School District. “There has to be programming.”

In 2010, 30 states allowed students to drop out before age 18, including Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Before Wisconsin lawmakers raised the dropout age to 18, schools would frequently hear back from wayward students who regretted their premature departure, Finco said.

“They would figure out the error of their ways,” Finco said. “And then they would turn around and come back.”

Now, when a student who is younger than 18 continually dodges class, La Crosse and Onalaska school officials contact the student, his parents and sometimes law enforcement, depending on the severity of the situation.

By asking other states to follow Wisconsin’s example, Obama is promoting an educational system that puts more belief in its students, said Randy Nelson, superintendent for the La Crosse School District.

“This would push the envelope and require that the school and the student does not give up on one another,” Nelson said.

But if Obama’s aim is to improve the number of students who are ready for a career or college by the time they leave high school, educators will have to do much more than fall back on state law, Finco said.

In La Crosse schools, educators give shorter schedules for at-risk students, who can use chunks of the day for work-study. The district also has alternative programs with specialized coursework, thanks to a partnership with Western Technical College, Nelson said.

Onalaska schools rolled out a network of supports to help keep students in school, and have since benefited with improved graduation rates, Finco said.

The Onalaska Alternative Services and Instruction School, located in the high school, gives at-risk students a more flexible environment for learning, with online instruction.

The high school also builds in “intervention” class periods, to give students more one-on-one time with teachers in classes where they struggle.

Even in states where the legal drop-out age is 16 or 17, schools should be taking advantage of similar programs, Finco said. Ensuring a full education for all students takes constant adaptation.

“We had to adjust what we did,” Finco said. “We continually tweak things to meet the needs of all the kids.”‘

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