Crusader seeks Charleston school board’s support for raising dropout age

Mark Epstein (right) presents his proposal to raise the state dropout age to 18 in Congressman Mark Sanford’s office in Mt. Pleasant. Epstein and state Rep. Wendell Gilliard are asking the district to support the measure in the Statehouse.

The Charleston County school board will decide Mon. Dec. 14 whether to throw its support behind a former guidance counselor’s simple idea to keep students enrolled: raising the minimum dropout age by a year.

South Carolina law currently requires students to stay in school until their 17th birthday. Mark Epstein, a recently retired St. John’s High School guidance counselor, is leading a statewide push to raise that age to 18.

“I saw thousands of young people’s lives ruined with immature, uninformed decisions,” Epstein said Monday in a meeting with the school board’s Strategic Education Committee. He said students who drop out at 17 fall into a “gap year” before turning 18, the minimum age to enroll in many career training courses at technical colleges.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he intends to introduce a bill in January that would raise the dropout age to 18.

“Mr. Epstein here has really generated what we needed — interest in Charleston County — to move the General Assembly forward on this issue,” Gilliard said.

Epstein and Gilliard, who threw their arms over each other’s shoulders as they made their case to the committee, are asking the board for a letter of recommendation to state lawmakers. The pair have been holding meetings around the state in recent months, including with Congressman Mark Sanford and Gov. Nikki Haley.

School board member the Rev. Eric Mack said he would support the proposal. Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait also supports it, but said raising the dropout age would force the district to consider how to work with would-be high school dropouts after they turn 17.

“If the dropout age is raised to 18, then we really need to think seriously about how we engage those students productively,” Postlewait said.

South Carolina is one of 11 states where the minimum dropout age is 17, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fifteen states have a dropout ago of 16, and 24 states and the District of Columbia set the age at 18.

Postlewait will give a status report Dec. 14 on potential spending cuts and policy changes to deal with the district’s ongoing financial woes. A budget shortfall for the current school year is predicted to reach as much as $6.5 million by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2016, even after the district saved money by putting a freeze on filling vacant positions. The board will not vote on the proposals until its next meeting on Jan. 11.

In an interim financial report Monday, Interim Chief Financial Officer Glenn Stiegman said the district is on track to overspend its printing and binding budget alone by more than $900,000, just as it did during the previous year’s $18 million shortfall. Stiegman said district leaders will meet Wednesday with its printing service and supply contractor Ricoh to discuss “cost-cutting proposals.”

The school board also will consider at the December meeting a charter school application for Prestige Preparatory Academy, a K-8 school for at-risk boys. The board can choose to either approve the application and fund the school or to hold a hearing and ask the applicants more questions.

The board also will decide whether to change the attendance lines for Montessori Community School, currently a district-wide magnet school in high demand, so that only students from District 10 and District 23 (an area including West Ashley and Edisto Island) can attend it. With Montessori programs already in place at Murray Lasaine Elementary, Simons Elementary, Hursey Elementary and East Cooper Montessori, the proposal would help the district reach its goal of providing equal Montessori access in every area of the district.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.