Starting next school year, Hickory Public Schools and the Newton-Conover School System will both raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 years old. Both are part of a pilot program, approved by the General Assembly, to look at the feasibility of raising the age statewide.
Business leaders in Catawba County lobbied lawmakers for the change.
"The business community needs a better prepared work force," said Dean Proctor, who owns a major distribution company in the area. Proctor said it not only benefits the individual with a better job and higher wages, but lifts the community up as well.
Times have changed, he said, since students could dropout of school and find a job where they could make a good living.
"It's not the same nowadays," he said.
Factories and other places that used to recruit teenagers while they were in school don't exist anymore, said Proctor.
Newton-Conover School Superintendent Dr. David Stegall thinks raising the age will give more teenagers a chance to get a high school diploma.
"We are putting programs together to help the students succeed, he said. Keeping the teens in school is a major step, he thinks. "At 14, 15, 16 years of age you may not know what you need at 17, 20, or even 30."
Penalties will remain the same as they are for those under the current rules who dropout before age 16. They may be denied a driver's license and parents could face court action. Johnny Parker has a son at Hickory High School and says he is doing all he can to encourage him to stay in the classroom.
"If he wants to have something in life he needs to stay in school." Parker said he knows firsthand what can happen because he was a dropout himself many years ago. "It's hard to find a job nowadays," he said. "I wish somebody had whooped my tail and made me go to school,"
Stegall said the school systems have not been given much direction on how to work with the teens who may be at risk but said teachers are trained and more programs may be in place by the time the new rules take effect.
The state, Stegall said, will look at the results in the coming years before deciding what to do statewide. "I think it will be good."
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