Editorial: Moving in right direction

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 2, 2007

A one-year dip in the dropout rate isn’t necessarily a sign of a trend or clearcut evidence the school system is gaining ground on one of the most serious problems confronting it and other districts across the state. But what about a two-year dip? Would that summon forth a little more optimism that dropout statistics released this week hold genuinely good news for a system that could use some upbeat developments?

As school board Chairman Bryce Beard candidly noted, it’s too early to say we’ve turned the corner on the dropout problem. In fact, we may still be trying to determine the best road to take. But this was the second consecutive year that Rowan-Salisbury Schools showed improvement in the number of 9-12 graders who are staying in school. The 2005-2006 dropout rate of 4.37 was down from 5.49 percent for the 2004-2005 year while also bettering the state average of about 5 percent. The 2004-2005 figure, in turn, was down from 5.78 in 2003-2004. The rate has dropped in three of the last five terms, a significant showing even if it’s premature to christen it a turning point.

It’s important to note what the state means by a dropout or, in the technocrat jargon used by the State Board of Education, a “dropout event.” The state considers a dropout to be “any student who leaves school for any reason before graduation or completion of a program of studies without transferring to another elementary or secondary school.” That measurement yields a sunnier number than the graduation rate, which tracks how many students entering high school actually get a diploma four years later. The graduation rates will be released later and are likely to give a more sobering picture, with the state graduation rate expected to be in the 60-percent range.

The average resident is probably less concerned with technicalities than basic questions: How many kids are we losing, and what are we doing to change things? Schools are doing a lot of things, including trying to identify potential dropouts in earlier grades and providing more help to those who fall behind. As Beard noted, schools also are revising programs to offer more real-world relevance to students who don’t aspire to a four-year college degree. That change is supported by an interesting footnote in the state report: An increasing number of dropouts continue their education at community colleges. Contrary to the notion that dropouts don’t care about their future, that suggests many want to better themselves but not at conventional high schools.

At the state level, legislators are expected to reconsider an overdue change in the mandatory attendance law. It currently lets students drop out at 16, a level set generations ago when dropouts went to work on family farms or in the mills. Some legislators are concerned that raising the attendance age will also raise costs by requiring more teachers and resources. In the short term, that’s true. But compared to the high societal costs of dropouts, any additional expense would pay off in less crime, less dependence on social services and a more highly skilled workforce.

When it comes to dropout and graduation rates, schools can get worse, get better or stand still. It’s too early to proclaim a trend for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, but it’s not too early to cheer some movement in the right direction.