TORONTO - Some high school dropouts can now earn part of their diploma doing administrative jobs for the Ontario government as the province comes up with new ways to keep kids in school until their 18th birthday.

The expanded program , which now includes high schools in Windsor, Ottawa and Toronto, is part of the government's aim to have nearly 100,000 more students graduate from high school by 2010.

It is now illegal for students to drop out before they turn 18, but Education Minister Kathleen Wynne says the province is using more than the heavy hand of the law to keep kids working toward their high school diploma.

Programs like this will help boost Ontario's graduation rate, currently hovering around 30 per cent, by tailoring the high school experience to individual students, Wynne said Tuesday.

"We're putting in place alternatives for kids who have become disengaged from the system,'' she said. "It's a good example of the kinds of programs we need to see across the province.''

The program allows 80 participants to earn 10 high school credits toward their diploma and gives them up to 27 weeks of experience while working for minimum wage. Some are working in the province's archives, while others are doing administrative tasks for the courts.

Although only a handful of students can take advantage of this new program, Government Services Minister Gerry Phillips said he would like to see the program expanded to other Ontario communities.

"You would be very surprised at how talented these young people are,'' he said. "For a variety of reasons, all of these young people have chosen to drop out of school, but that doesn't mean that they aren't very talented. ... All they need is a chance.''

But opposition critics say there are thousands of students in Ontario who need that chance, not just the 80 eligible for the program. If the province is serious about boosting graduation rates, it should follow through on a promise to change the way Ontario schools are funded, said Conservative Frank Klees.

Students who are at risk of dropping out need existing programs to be well-funded and supported in the classroom more than they need an expanded pilot program, Klees said.

"There is nothing of substance here,'' he said. "What they are doing is extending a decades-old co-op program. ... It's wonderful for those 80 students, but what about the thousands of other students across the province who have need of practical support in their classrooms?''

If the program is such a good idea for those 80 students, then it should be a good idea for students across the province, said New Democrat Michael Prue.

Four high schools across Ontario are now eligible for the expanded pilot program, but Prue said there are many more students who deserve a similar opportunity.

"Surely to God there are thousands upon thousands of students who could benefit from this, but they don't want to spend the money,'' Prue said.

"They want to announce these little snippets but they don't want to do the right thing: spend the money and give these kids a chance.''

The expanded program follows a pilot project at Lester B. Pearson Collegiate in east-end Toronto, where participants earned up to five credits toward their high school diploma. Dropouts between the ages of 16 and 19 from Father Henry Carr Catholic High School in Toronto, J.L. Forster High School in Windsor and St. Pius X Catholic High School in Ottawa are now eligible for the program.