NJ lawmakers want to know why students are dropping out of high school
Clarence Pate's high school education in Mercer County was disrupted by housing insecurity and family responsibilities.
When his mother lost their home, he had to withdraw. And although he wanted to keep going to school, he wasn't able to because he was no longer a resident of the town.
"I felt like I was being punished for being poor," Pate told a New Jersey Assembly committee on Thursday.
Since the start of this month, panels of lawmakers in both the Assembly and Senate have advanced legislation that creates both an office in the Department of Education and a task force that would be focused specifically on the issue of high school dropouts.
Pate said the move would be a solid first step towards helping officials better understand the variety of students' experiences outside of school that impact their attendance — many dropouts may have not had much of a choice.
"Young people across our state experience the trauma of homelessness, parental incarceration, and the responsibility of supporting their families at a young age," Pate said.
Under the measure, an 18-member task force would take a deep dive into dropout data, examine the reasons why students leave school, and identify ways to reduce the number of dropouts and get kids who've left to re-enroll.
"This is often a topic that goes unaddressed," said Maria Lorenz, an advocate in Elizabeth.
Lorenz is pushing for more community involvement in the task force. Under the proposed law, two of the 18 task force would be members of the public.
"It starts with the community having a voice in the matter, sharing their story," Lorenz said.
The average high school dropout rate is around 5% nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. New Jersey typically posts a rate much lower than that — closer to 1% — but certain communities struggle more than others.