Students push N.J. lawmakers to engage disconnected youth, in effort to curb high school dropout rate

A school hallway with motion blur of students.

(msymons/BigStock)

Students in New Jersey are expected to attend school and graduate ready to enter the workforce or continue their education.

However, many students fall through the cracks, dropping out of school before they obtain a diploma. And considering the staggering amount of learning loss for New Jersey students brought on by the pandemic, some say the government should work harder to ensure more kids have a better opportunity to succeed in life.

“My experience as a student is that I faced a lot of mental health issues that went unattended for years, and that I couldn’t get attended to because of bad insurance,” said Blake, a Newark high school senior and student advocate with the New Jersey Opportunity Youth Coalition. “I didn’t know that my school even had any counselors to begin with. And once the pandemic hit, things did get worse before they got better.”

We’re not using Blake’s first name because she’s a minor.

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Blake says some students in historically marginalized communities have a difficult time completing requirements to graduate, and she argues that mental health challenges, a stigma against students of color who come from low income households, and systemic inequities all play a role.

She’s called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a task force to study the issue and come up with an action plan to address it.

“I think by being able to recognize a student before they drop out, and try to get them the help they need before they come to the conclusion that they wanted to quit school, would help a lot of students realize they do want to graduate and that they do want to make something of themselves instead of just giving up because they feel like that’s the only option,” Blake said.

New Jersey dropout rates by the numbers

According to the latest statewide data, New Jersey’s high school dropout rate is only 1% — relatively low compared to the national average of around 5%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Yet, there are about 100,000 students the state calls “opportunity youth,” those ages 16 to 24 who don’t attend school or have a job.

Senate majority leader Teresa Ruiz introduced the legislation last fall and spoke about the issue at a recent Senate Budget Committee hearing as the committee unanimously approved the bill.

“This is an investment policy,” Ruiz said at the hearing last Thursday. “The return on its dividends will be extraordinary.”

In addition to creating an action plan, the bill establishes a new leadership position within the Department of Education called the state ombudsman.

According to language in the bill the ombudsman would be required to:

  • Collaborate with school districts to develop and implement a Statewide strategic plan of action;
  • Work with a variety of governmental agencies to address the challenges facing student dropouts;
  • Develop best practices consistent with the recommendations of the School Disconnection Prevention Task Force;
  • And advise the Commissioner of Education on ways to prevent students from disconnecting from school and strategies for reengaging students who have disconnected from school.

The General Assembly Education Committee also approved its version of the bill nearly a year ago, but it hasn’t received a budget hearing in the lower house.

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