Progress on dropout rates

Jan. 14, 2013 @ 03:02 PM

There may once have been a time when we did not need to worry much if many students failed to finish high school.  A robust manufacturing economy – or a substantial agriculture sector – could for much of the past century provide a decent-paying job to someone who never tossed a tassel at a high-school graduation ceremony.

In Durham, that certainly was true with generations of men and women who could draw a solid paycheck in the tobacco and textile factories that dominated our economy.

Of course, those days are long gone -- as Bruce Springsteen sang a quarter-century ago, “these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back.”

We cannot afford to let young men and women fail to complete high school these days – that’s a minimum credential for almost any job.  And area school districts are taking increasingly proactive steps to keep students in school.

There is indication of some success. Durham, a school district challenged by the high percentage of its students from socio-economically disadvantaged homes, brought its dropout rate down by 2.4 percent last year, compared to the year before.

The good news is that nine fewer students dropped out. The bad news is, 362 did leave before finishing. 

The district continues, encouragingly, to ramp up its efforts. Administrators are well aware of the stakes.

“We’ve put some pretty intense effort on reducing our dropouts, most importantly because we are keenly aware of the implications for the individual student, their future and for our community,” Debbie Pittman, area superintendent for student services, told The Herald-Sun’s Wes Platt last week.

Part of the schools’ response is to find alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. Schools juggle conflicting needs – disruptive or threatening students can distract or endanger other students, and need to be separated. But barring them from the classroom only increases the chance that students will fall behind and drop out in discouragement or alienation.

Nearby, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has had particular success in dealing with dropouts and in decreasing drop-outs. The drop-out rate there declined by 13.6 percent last year, with only 38 students dropping out.

Durham, with its larger and more diverse student population, may never see those numbers – but it continues to make aggressive efforts in that direction.

As Jeff Riley, coordinator of student services and safe schools for CHCCS, put it succinctly:

“One dropout is too many.”