Editorial: Tip of iceberg on dropouts

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 18, 2008

Everyone wants to lower Rowan County’s dropout rate, but few understand the causes behind it ó the reasons teenagers decide to leave school before getting a diploma.
From 1996-97 to 2006-07, the dropout rate for Rowan-Salisbury schools increased from 4.58 percent to 5.47 percent. Post reporter Sarah Nagem’s “Dropout Dilemma” series this week focuses on three students ó two who have dropped out and another who is taking an alternative route ó to shed light on the people behind the numbers. Each story is unique, showing that the reasons students drop out are many. Some kids aren’t motivated, some lack structure and support in their lives, others go through family changes that throw them off track. And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. The school system faces a huge challenge in solving such a multi-faceted problem.
Fortunately, there is help. Earlier this year, leaders at Rowan-Salisbury Schools learned the system would receive a $6 million grant over four years from the U.S. Department of Education to battle the risk factors that lead to dropouts. The program is called LINKS ó for Learning, Intervention, Nurturing, Knowledge and Student Achievement. In the past week, other grants have come through to fund dropout prevention programs at West Rowan and North Rowan high schools. The initiatives from these three grants run the gamut ó helping teens quit smoking, lining up mental-health care, offering flexible schedules, hiring social workers and graduation coaches and much more.
These are worthwhile efforts, but the schools cannot do the job alone.The rising dropout rate is just as strong an indicator of troubles and distractions outside of school as troubles in school ó and those situations start long before a teen’s junior or senior year. In addition to personal problems, there’s the local culture. For decades upon decades, people in Rowan County relied on textile plants to hire young men and women without diplomas and help them make a good living. Those jobs have disappeared, but the local culture is slower to change.
Becoming more aware of a problem is the first step toward making meaningful change. The examples the Post presents this week of dropouts represent thousands of young people who for a variety of reasons have lost their way on the journey to a diploma. Yet they are the workforce of tomorrow. If Rowan doesn’t convince more teenagers to stay in school, get a diploma and gain job skills, we will lack the workforce to attract new industry and better jobs ó and that could lead to a quick spiral downward. The school system is doing its part to land valuable grants and attack the problem. If the community supports those efforts, the picture should improve.