By Carol Kozma

Statehouse Correspondent

BOSTON -- Friends hugged and congratulated Hayley Cannon, a former Lowell High School student at risk of dropping out, who says smaller classes and more attention have helped her succeed in her studies.

"I am so much happier," she said. "I am getting more confident."

When she was 15, Cannon said, there were problems at home. She stopped eating, and went in and out of treatment facilities.

"I felt like I couldn't handle anything anymore," she told members of the Joint Committee on Education Tuesday at the Statehouse.

Cannon transferred from Lowell High School to Dracut High School, but things did not get better. And then, a couple of months ago, she started attending the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.

"I actually feel like I am going to succeed in more ways than one," Cannon told members.

Now 17, Cannon said in an interview after she testified that she plans to attend Middlesex Community College when she graduates to study sociology.

The Statehouse's Gardner Auditorium was filled with lawmakers and students who, like Cannon, came to testify on a bill that would raise the mandatory age for attending school from 16 to 18. It would also require data collection to identify at-risk students, and create plans for graduation coaches who would work one on one with those students.

"In order to do this, we need to have a comprehensive plan that gets to the roots of what causes dropouts," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the committee chair and bill sponsor, told committee members.

"So we have the playbook. The costs of not using it are huge," said Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat.

Rep. Mary Keefe, D-Worcester, told the committee of meeting with a young man who told her that if he missed two weeks of school at a time, no one at the school would ask him about his absence.

"A big part of what we are talking about is accountability, all around," Keefe said.

Local school officials already have a system to detect at-risk students, and support the bill, but worry about the cost it could incur.

"I have to say supporting young people is the business we are in, but it is a very expensive business," Lowell Superintendent of Schools Jean Franco said in a phone interview.

Franco said that if the mandatory age to attend school is raised to 18, schools would have to support more students.

Lowell public schools use Early Warning Indication System to identify at-risk students, which includes monitoring attendance. There is also a social worker in every Lowell public school, Franco said.

Between 2008 and 2010, the dropout rate remained steady at 4.4 percent. It peaked in 2010-11 to 8.1 percent, and came down to 3.8 percent in 2011-12, Franco said.

Statewide, the dropout rate went from 2.7 percent of 289,161 enrolled high-school students in 2010-11 to 2.5 percent for 287,055 students in 2011-12.

Chang-Diaz said after the hearing that the state will help fund mandates, although it is not yet clear how.

"We won't just toss these mandates on schools," Chang-Diaz said.