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Grissom column: Schools all too aware of need to graduate

Governor Easley has declared Sept. 7-13 as Graduation Awareness Week in North Carolina. State Superintendent June Atkinson is encouraging school districts and communities to use this observance to draw attention to the importance of high school graduation and to the need to improve North Carolina’s graduation rate.
“Students in North Carolina need to hear one message from kindergarten all the way through school. And that message is: Graduate!” Atkinson said. “This needs to be the minimum expectation for every student.”
Each state sets its own rules about meeting high school graduation requirements. In North Carolina, students who leave high school for a community college GED or adult high school program are counted as dropouts under state policy. Also, the cohort graduation rate, which illustrates what percentage of ninth graders graduated from high school four years later, does not count students with disabilities who complete the 12th grade but do not qualify for a standard diploma and instead earn a Certificate of Achievement or Graduation Certificate. In addition, school officials only identify a student as a transfer to another high school instead of a dropout when the receiving school requests the student’s records. (From the State Department of Public Instruction’s Press Release)
While 67 percent is the current four-year cohort graduation rate for Rowan-Salisbury School System, with the largest number of non-graduates at our alternative school, that does not mean that 33 percent of the students have dropped out. There are students who remain in high school beyond four years, and it is likely that some of them will be counted in the next five-year cohort graduation rate when it is reported in 2009. The rate for the state of North Carolina was very similar at 69.9 percent. The five-year cohort graduation rate for Rowan-Salisbury School System was actually a little higher than the state at 73.9 percent, with the state at 71.8 percent.
Across North Carolina and in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, high school staff continue to struggle to find ways to keep students “on track” for graduation. There are a number of efforts that are underway to help strengthen the high school experience for all students. These efforts include the new Early College high school program at Rowan Cabarrus Community College, which provides students an opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree or two years of college credit.
High schools are implementing ninth grade academies, career counseling, and course credit recovery programs. Ninth grade is the year that most students physically drop out, although many “mentally” drop out at a much earlier age.
School system representatives have joined with the Rowan Partners for Education in developing ways that community agencies across the county can support efforts to keep students in school. The school system has created a Dropout/Graduation Rate Task Force to study why students do not graduate on time and what the school system can do to help these students receive a high school diploma.
The school system’s new $6 million grant, LINKS ó Learning, Intervention, Nurturing, Knowledge and Student Achievement ó provides funding over the next four years to address many of the at-risk factors that lead to students dropping out of school. The grant will fund several social worker positions, early intervention specialists and transition coordinators to work directly with students and parents. The grant will provide funds for training in the areas of conflict management, parenting skills, addressing bullying and gang awareness. We are very fortunate to have some financial support to address these issues.
State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee has challenged schools and communities to provide the encouragement, support and expectations students need to stay in school.
“The world is going to be a very tough place for young people who enter the workforce without a high school diploma,” Lee said. “In reality, a high school diploma is a minimum requirement. Students are going to need additional schooling and training in order to support themselves and their families.”
Making sure that students graduate from high school is not just a school system problem and will not be solved by the school system acting alone. Making sure that all students graduate will take a combined effort of parents, students, community, and schools. Watch for more information during the week of Sept. 7-13.
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Dr. Judy Grissom is superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.

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