Cowden column: Local groups look for ways to help and encourage youths to stay in school and graduate

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By James Cowden
For the Salisbury Post
Another school year is under way in Rowan County. Students wait with great anticipation to see old friends, make new friends and get to know their teachers.
Most students will acclimate quickly to the new school year, but some will drop out of school before they graduate.
Why do students drop out of school? There is no single reason why. According to “The Silent Epidemic, Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” the top five reasons dropouts identify for leaving school are:
– Classes were not interesting (47 percent);
– Missed too many days and could not catch up (43 percent);
– Spent time with people who were not interested in school (42 percent);
– Had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life (38 percent);
– Was failing in school (35 percent).
The biggest surprise to most people is the belief that dropouts must be failing school. The “Silent Epidemic” survey found that 88 percent of dropouts had passing grades, with 62 percent having C’s and above.
As complex as individual circumstances may be for young people dropping out of school, it is seldom a sudden act, but a gradual process of disengagement. Youths may refuse to wake up, skip class or have frequent absences from school.
Parents are sometimes at a loss on how to get their kids to attend school. They may rely on the school truant officer to get their child back in school, but ultimately the student becomes further disengaged.
My oldest son was an example of a student who didn’t want to attend school. It was a struggle every morning to get him up and ready to go to school. I am not talking about high school or middle school, but when he was in the first and second grades. As time went on, he had more frequent absences, but eventually graduated through a home school program.
He was a smart kid who didn’t perform well in a formal school setting. He attended one semester at a community college, but didn’t do well there either.
When youths don’t attend school regularly, they begin to fall behind in their classes. They can struggle to make up the work missed but miss the opportunity to hear class interaction with the teacher and to ask questions of the teacher. The high school graduation requirements are stringent for today’s students.
The decision to drop out of school does not begin in the 10th grade or when a student turns 16, the age North Carolina will allow a student to drop out.
According to Linda Harrill, state director of Communities in Schools of North Carolina, too often parents believe that middle school “doesn’t matter because it does not count.” What they fail to realize is that grades 4 through 8 are the most critical in a child’s educational development. The foundations of basic reading and math are important in the primary grades.
Communities throughout Rowan County are actively involved in helping youths graduate. The Rowan Partners for Education, an advocacy group for public school excellence, recently held a round-table discussion in reducing the dropout rate locally. Agencies involved were Adolescent and Family Enrichment Council, Black Achievers, Communities in Schools, Cooperative Extension, Department of Social Services Children Services Division, Girl Scouts, Henderson Independent High School, Lideres Hispanos del Futuro, Project Safe, Rowan County United Way, Youth Services Bureau and YMCA and the Rowan-Salisbury School District’s intervention and prevention programs. Some of these are the 6 Up and 9 Up programs, whereby rising sixth- and ninth-graders are provided skills they will need to feel more competent in their classes. This is provided before the school day begins.
The Rowan-Salisbury School System also received a $6 million federal grant for dropout prevention. During the next four years, the grant will focus on risk factors on youth, such as alcohol and drug abuse, bullying and gang activity. Many programs will be directed toward elementary and middle school age levels.
These are a few of the many new and continuing initiatives that will help students complete their education.
State Superintendent of Public Schools June Atkinson has announced a “Graduation Awareness Week” Sept. 7-13 to build a statewide awareness program to encourage students to stay in school and graduate from high school.
James C. Cowden is Rowan County Cooperative Extension director.