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Moving to decrease an already low dropout rate, the Tonawanda School Board has voted unanimously to require students to stay in school through the year they turn 17, instead of allowing them to leave at 16.

"The longer you can keep a child in school and help him get a good education, the better off he'll be," Board President Susan Gregg said.

Tonawanda city schools already have a small dropout rate -- about 1 percent -- but members said the change should decrease it further.

The measure was championed by a board member, Pamela Peterman, who also is active in a drive to change state law so that minors can't leave home without parental consent at 16.

As long as they remain in the city, such youngsters can at least be kept in school, even if they can't be kept at home, she said.

"It's leverage," Mrs. Peterman said, "a tool for educators and parents."

New York's education law now allows youngsters to leave school when they turn 16. Several years ago, though, the state amended that law to allow city, union free and central school districts to require students to attend until the end of the school year they turn 17.

Few districts have done so, however, said David Ernst, a spokesman for the New York State Association of School Boards.

Mrs. Peterman said it appears that few districts realize the law has been amended. She also said those who do realize it might be worried about the difficulty of enforcing the change.

That's less of a concern in a small district like Tonawanda's, she said. The high school only has about 820 students, and with such a small dropout rate, the change will probably only apply to a few students, she said.

Superintendent Diana D. Greene said the new rules go into effect this year. The district now plans to notify parents as soon as possible, she said.

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