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Commentary: Get early start on dropout prevention

By Linda Harrill
For the Salisbury Post
Recently, there has been a tendency to panic over the dismal high school graduation rates across our country. Although it is a cause for alarm and a wake up call for our citizens, we must first admit that this isn’t a problem that simply begins in the ninth grade.
In North Carolina, we give young people permission to drop out of school at age 16, which for many students means either the end of eighth grade or early ninth grade. But the decision to drop out does not start in high school; it starts much earlier. It starts when students start to fail, do not master the basic skills early, are socially promoted without the necessary mastery of subject matter, stop doing homework, and skip school. It starts when parents decide that children do not need their daily supervision or believe that encouragement is not important to their child’s success. It starts when parents allow children to leave homework undone because they are too busy. It starts when parents do not demand that their older elementary and middle school students have the best teachers and do not ask for more accountability.
Too often parents believe that middle school “doesn’t matter because it does not count.” What they fail to realize is that grades four through eight are the most critical in a child’s educational development. Placement for high school courses is often based on what teachers see in the middle grades, and that often determines how students are viewed by teachers and parents for their entire high school careers.
Academically, we should all be more focused on laying the foundations of basic reading and math in earlier grades. Our students will never be prepared to succeed unless we teach them the critical thinking skills that are rooted in a firm academic beginning.
I urge policymakers, school leaders, parents and others to pay much more attention to students in the middle grades. These are critical years academically, socially and emotionally. Students engage more actively with their peers and begin to become individuals. These are the years that they make decisions that will impact them for a lifetime.
As we work together to lower the high school dropout rate, let us be sure that we are addressing the problem at its root cause, not just what is the most apparent. We need to make sure that we are building a network of support and services to help our children succeed. In North Carolina we have done a good job of providing support and resources to early education and preschool and now high school reform, but we should not forget the children in middle grades.
Communities In Schools of North Carolina (CISNC) is one of the largest community-based networks of local organizations focused on dropout prevention that provides services at every grade level. CISNC has learned that to increase graduation rates, we must help students succeed in school at every grade level and ensure that they are prepared for the future.
We must stop thinking of dropping out as a one-time event and recognize that it is the result of a steady progression. An investment in the middle grades is essential to raising the graduation rate in our state, and it won’t happen until we all get involved. Invest in your community by becoming a mentor or tutor for a student “in the middle.”
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Linda Harrill is state director of Communities in Schools of North Carolina. Visit www.cisnc.org for more ways to get involved in your community. For local information call, Vicky Slusser at 704-797-0210

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