Schools adjusting to new dropout law, juvenile justice reform
Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
With the 2015-16 school year, Kentucky’s school districts are dealing with a convergence of two state laws that educators fear could create a strain on their resources.
The law raising the dropout age to 18 has kicked in for most school districts, which at the same time are feeling their way through the changes prompted by new juvenile justice reforms.
The same types of strategies will be used to help students affected by both new laws, said Christina Weeter, director of the state education department’s Division of Student Success.
“The students who get involved in the court system are far more predisposed to become dropouts or get to age 18 without having a diploma,” she said.
School districts received dropout prevention planning grants earlier to develop strategies to keep students in school. Juvenile justice reform will see the creation of diversion plans for youth who are truant or commit other offenses defined by their age – plans that will require them to attend school and are likely to funnel them into both school and community services. (See story on opposite page.)
Schools will begin to feel the impact this school year, “when they’re starting to deal with student behaviors that will kind of bump up against these two policies,” Weeter said. Rather than it being a negative, however, Weeter said she views it as a positive incentive for school districts “to start doing things differently.”
Health care reform has opened the door for students to get counseling and mental health treatment at Medicaid-eligible community-based agencies and providers, but the demands on school personnel also may be increased, she said.
Services that may see additional traffic include school-based alternative programs and family resource/youth services centers; pupil personnel directors, school social workers, counselors and psychologists could also see an increased workload.
Melissa Goins, director of the state Division of Family Resource and Youth Services Centers, said her office and other child-serving agencies have discussed the impact of the juvenile justice law in particular “and we don’t know exactly what the impact is going to be on the front end of the systems. We’re monitoring it very closely.”
Goins said her division is currently educating the centers on “the rationale and intent” of the juvenile justice reforms so their staff will understand “why we’re doing this.”
KDE is predicting an uptick in alternative programs, new or expanded. Though the department hasn’t heard anything definitive from districts, “We think that would be a logical step for school districts to take when thinking about the fact that they’re going to have more students who are not the typical student that they’ll be responsible for,” Weeter said.
Wayne County Assistant Superintendent Allen Clark said the new laws also may have districts looking into other means of keeping students in school besides alternative programs, such as performance-based credits and virtual learning.
Travis Anderson, who oversees Calloway County Schools’ alternative program and day treatment center, said he thinks the effects of juvenile justice reform will be felt more on residential facilities for students who have been placed out of home than on his in-school program, since fewer youth will go through the court system, which orders those placements.
For example, Clark’s district supplies the Lake Cumberland Youth Development Center with four teachers who have served about 40 youth there in the past. This year, the center is housing about half that number, but the teaching staff can’t be adjusted this year because those four teachers are under contract, he said.
Barren County Schools Superintendent Bo Matthews, who was on the statewide task force that spent two years studying juvenile justice reforms, said his district is open to increased demands for services created by the reforms, “but it’s going to be a matter of dollars and cents. We can certainly take that caseload on, but we do run the risk of neglecting our day-to-day duties.”
The juvenile justice reform legislation, Senate Bill 200, states that a portion of the savings realized through treating instead of incarcerating juveniles would be reinvested into “community-based programs and services.” It calls for setting up a grant program to award funds to judicial districts for treatment programs that are alternatives to out-of-home placements.
Matthews said he had heard throughout the process of hammering out the law that some of this funding would come back to education, but thus far he has not seen any savings reverting to schools to help offset the impact of the law on their services.
Weeter said KDE is looking at several ways to help districts, including taking an in-depth look at the successful strategies being used by this year’s 11 alternative programs of distinction “and letting the rest of the state know about them.”
The agency has created regional dropout prevention grants, which are being awarded to districts with very low dropout rates. The funds will enable those districts to provide training and technical assistance on dropout prevention strategies to their neighboring districts with higher dropout rates.
Weeter said the department also is trying to “relaunch” an early warning system called persistence to graduation, which is built into the Infinite Campus student information system. This assigns a risk value score to students so schools can identify students at risk of dropping out or who need interventions.
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