Chang-Diaz puts the focus on upgrading graduation rates

“Graduation coaches” would be placed in every public middle school and high school with a dropout rate of five percent or more and employers would be required to allow employees to take up to 24 hours per academic year in paid leave to attend school activities under legislation state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is pushing to lower dropout rates.

Recently sworn into a second two-year term and co-chairing the Legislature’s Education Committee, the former teacher says the dropout bill is a top priority for her.

According to the state Department of Education, nearly 8,600 students out 292,372 high school students dropped out during the 2008 to 2009 school year, a 0.5 percent improvement over the school year before that. Gov. Deval Patrick is seeking a 1.7 percent dropout rate by 2014, from 2.9 percent last year.

African-American and Hispanic students leave school at higher rates than their white and Asian peers. Among African American high school students, 5.6 percent dropped out during the 2008-2009 school year, down from 5.8 percent in 2007-2008, while there has been a decline for Hispanic students to 7.5 percent from 8.3 percent.

But the dropout rate remains a costly crisis, Chang-Diaz said in an interview with the Reporter where she also discussed health insurance reform and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson’s sentencing earlier this month.

“When you look at all communities across the state, there are 10,000 students annually who are dropping out of school in Massachusetts,” Chang-Diaz said. “And that is 10,000 on top of the 10,000 who dropped out last year, on top of the 10,000 who dropped out the year before that, and 10,000 the year before that. And we really have this mounting crisis in Massachusetts, because there’s a very clear connection of the dots between those rates and…the individuals who show up in our prison systems, in our public assistance systems, whether it’s housing, or emergency assistance or subsidized health care.

“Those students stay in our communities, they are still a part of our state, and they’re going to show up somewhere. We’re going to pay for it one way or another,” Chang-Diaz added.

The bill draws on an October 2009 report issued by a legislatively-mandated commission that focused on dropout prevention.

The bill creates the “Massachusetts Graduation Coach Initiative,” modeled on a Georgia program that matches students at risk of dropping out with “graduation coaches” who monitor students’ attendance and provide intervention services and peer tutoring. The Georgia program, which has a fluctuating price tag that has reached $50 million, helped to increase in the graduation rate to 75.4 percent in 2008 from 69.5 percent in 2006, according to the 2009 commission report.

The bill also directs the “graduation coach” to convene the student, guardian, and a school representative to a meeting to create an “individualized family engagement plan” that would allow for “strong family involvement” in the student’s academic activities.

The bill also requires employers to allow employees who are parents or guardians to take up to 24 hours per academic year in paid leave so they can attend school activities for their children. “There really are enormous pressures on a lot of parents’ lives,” she said, recalling that as a Lynn teacher, it was a “good day” if 50 percent of parents showed up for parent-teacher conference night.

The bill also directs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish a pilot program expanding the use of the “Early Warning Indicator Index,” which currently identifies eighth graders to thirds graders in danger of dropping out.

Departing from the 2009 report’s recommendations, the bill does not raise the high school dropout age to 18 from 16, a proposal Patrick has endorsed. “It doesn’t really get us that far to simply require school districts to warehouse kids for another two years,” Chang-Diaz said. “And what we really wanted to do was to give them the tools and expectations to do more so that children will find it meaningful to stay in school for those extra two years.”

The bill will face competition from other legislation, including municipal health insurance reform, which Gov. Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Mayor Thomas Menino have all expressed as top priorities. Menino, who notes health insurance costs take a $300 million bite out of the city’s budget, has sought greater control of health plan design, a move that would reduce some union power, critics say.

Chang-Diaz said she still supports the bill the Senate passed last session, but that never made it into a final House-Senate bill. The compromise would allow cities and towns to participate in the state Group Insurance Commission or create a local version without going into collective bargaining. But the municipality would have to share the savings from the change with the municipal unions, a departure from the mayor’s proposal.

“Should collective bargaining trump everything else that we value as a state? No,” Chang-Diaz said. “But should it come after everything else? I don’t think that’s true, either. And in many cases these are contracts that workers have bargained in good faith over many years and have been agreed to by the leaders of those municipalities. So there’s an element of responsibility at the municipal level for the situation that municipalities are in right now.”

Asked about her predecessor, former state Sen. Wilkerson, getting sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, Chang-Diaz said, “the whole thing is incredibly sad for the district. I have really consciously not made it my business to opine on the judicial process going on with Sen. Wilkerson,” she added when pressed on her thoughts about the sentence.

Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat whose Second Suffolk District includes Roxbury and parts of Dorchester, is also making some changes to her team for her second term. Angela Brooks, a Dorchester resident and Chang-Diaz’s legal counsel, will become chief of staff when Jamie Hellen leaves next week. Hellen’s plans are undecided.

Chang-Diaz won re-election last fall with 70 percent of the vote, beating Roxbury attorney Hassan Williams by making electoral in-roads into precincts she didn’t fare as well in during her 2008 run.