A third of Rowan-Salisbury dropouts are freshmen

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 18, 2008

By Sarah Nagem
About a third of the students who drop out of Rowan-Salisbury schools do so during their freshman year, school officials say.
Students might not earn enough credits the first year of high school, then they turn 16 during their second or third go-around in ninth grade, says Dr. Walter Hart, assistant superintendent for administration with the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
At that point, they’re old enough to drop out. And they often do.
The result for schools is a graduation rate that’s nothing to brag about. Last school year, only about 71 percent of Rowan-Salisbury students graduated in four years.
That figure is on track with the statewide rate of about 70 percent.
School leaders agree kids don’t wake up one day in high school and decide to drop out. The warning signs show up early, they say ó often before students even enter middle school.
Youngsters might miss a lot of school. Or they might lag behind their peers academically. Their parents might not play an active role in their child’s education.
“It just filters and adds on and adds on and adds on,” says Dana Curry, a third-grade teacher at Koontz Elementary. “And they hit a breaking point.”
The reasons
School leaders often don’t know why students quit ó because they don’t get a chance to ask.
“You’d love to have an exit interview with every kid and ask them why they drop out,” says Tim Smith, student services director for Rowan-Salisbury schools. “But in reality, they just disappear.”
The school system encourages high school principals to interview students who are quitting. It’s important to know why students are dropping out, Smith says.
But a student who can’t be found can’t be interviewed.
Even so, education leaders have an idea about why students leave school for good.
About 14 percent of dropouts in North Carolina during the 2006-07 school year said they left high school to go to a community college, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
Many community colleges, including Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, offer GED programs.
About 7 percent of dropouts that year said they quit because of academic problems.
About 3 percent said they wanted to work instead, and less than 2 percent said they left because they had discipline problems.
Helping freshmen adjust
Rowan-Salisbury high schools have support systems for their youngest students, says Kathy McDuffie, director of secondary education for the school system.
“Our kids are moving from a very protective environment in middle school,” McDuffie says. “When they get into high school, there’s so much more freedom.”
To help them adjust, many local high schools created freshman academies this school year.
Teachers work in teams to focus on students’ needs, McDuffie says.
At North Rowan and West Rowan high schools, freshmen take classes in a separate part of the building from upper classmen as part of the academies.
Many high schools have also adopted professional learning communities, partly to help freshmen, McDuffie says.
Under this model, teachers meet once a week or so and collaborate on subject material.
Rodney Bass, the principal at North, told members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education earlier this fall that the program is working well at his school.
Teachers get together to talk about the issues that really matter, Bass told them ó like why students are learning more in some classes than others.
Some schools, including North, have created “watchlists” of freshmen at risk of dropping out, McDuffie says.
Salisbury and East Rowan high schools are the only local schools not using this approach. But those schools will likely adopt professional learning communities soon, McDuffie says.
The school system has other resources in place, too. Before the start of each school year, incoming freshmen attend a one-day transition program, where they get acquainted with their new school.
And students in every high school grade level have an adviser, McDuffie says.
Early signs of trouble
Students most at risk of dropping out of high school often display warning signs early on, experts say.
“There are children who enter school who struggle from the beginning,” says Dr. Rhonda Truitt, a teacher education professor at Catawba College.
The No. 1 indicator that a student will have trouble making it through high school is if the child is not reading by the end of third grade, says Dr. Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
A poor reader whose skills don’t improve a lot by fifth grade will have an even lower chance of success, Garland says.
“If a child comes into middle school off track and they’re not a strong reader, then they (continue to) go off track,” she says.
Several of the students in Curry’s third-grade class at Koontz aren’t reading on grade level, she says.
About two of the eight third-graders in Diane Davies’ class at Koontz read on a first-grade level or below, she says.
Davies teaches a special program for targeted at-risk third-graders at the school.
Many of her students are repeating the third grade. Others were at risk of not being promoted from the second grade.
Garland says not being a strong reader “leads to a disconnect for what education can do for me.”
Ricky Dunlap, principal at Koontz, says language skills are a good indicator of how well students will do.
Students whose language skills are lacking when they enter kindergarten are at risk, he says.
“A lot of that likely stems from a lack of of resources, the access to books,” Dunlap says.
That’s where parents come in. Garland says she believes parents really want to do what’s best for their kids.
But sometimes they don’t know how to be supportive of their child’s education, she says.
In that case, she says, it’s common for students to struggle.
“If there’s nothing pulling you toward that end goal, it’s easy to let go. … By the time I was able to walk, it was where I was going to college, not if,” Garland says.