Published 12:00 am Friday, February 3, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — The dropout rate in the Rowan-Salisbury School System fell last year to its lowest level in a decade, according to school officials.
“I hope these numbers are indicative of what’s to come in the future,” said Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Board of Education.
According to data released Thursday by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 214 Rowan-Salisbury students dropped out of school in 2010-11, for a dropout rate of 3.36. That’s down from 276 students and a rate of 4.24 in the 2009-10 school year, the state reported.
Spokeswoman Rita Foil said the district ranks 27th among the state’s 115 school system for its reduction in dropouts last year.
“This is a top priority for our district,” Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom said in a press release. “Our staff will continue to work hard and focus efforts to address the problems that cause students to drop out.”
Rowan-Salisbury’s numbers also were better than statewide figures.
Across North Carolina, 15,342 students dropped out last year, compared with 16,804 the previous year. The state dropout rate went from 3.75 in 2009-10 to 3.43 in 2010-11.
Kannapolis’ rate up
While Rowan-Salisbury’s 22.5 percent decrease in the number of students who dropped out mirrored a statewide trend, Kannapolis City Schools saw a 3.8 percent increase.
Last school year, 81 students left Kannapolis City Schools short of graduation, up from 78 the previous year. In the much smaller school system, that increased the dropout rate from 5.29 to 5.44, according to state figures.
“We can’t really pinpoint why (the numbers) went up last year,” said Ellen Boyd, the district’s public information officer. “The rate had come down considerably the year before because we put a lot of resources in place to purposely prevent dropouts.”
Boyd cited A.L. Brown High School’s mentoring and credit recovery programs, as well as the district’s newly established alternative learning center, as resources to help students stay in school.
“These things have been extremely effective in reducing the dropout rate,” she said.
Cabarrus County Schools also saw more students drop out last year, going from 218 in 2009-10 to 225 in 2010-11, for a 3.2 percent increase.
Historically, males make up the majority of students who drop out of school. That trend continued last year with males accounting for about 60 percent of students who left school.
Rowan and Kannapolis school systems follow the trend with males accounting for 62 percent and 58 percent, respectively, of dropouts.
Both statewide and locally, white students make up the highest percentage of dropouts of any race, with 65 percent of students leaving school in Rowan being white. That figure was 43 percent in Kannapolis and 46 percent across the state.
Blacks make up 25 percent of students who left school in Rowan, and 31 percent in Kannapolis schools last year.
Statewide that figure is 35 percent.
Focus on attendance
Attendance issues are the No. 1 reason students drop out of school.
That’s why the Rowan-Salisbury School System has attendance counsellors who work to arrange conferences with parents at the first sign of persistent absenteeism.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of parents working with us to be sure that their children are at school, ready to learn every day,” Grissom said.
The district has also launched a night school program at Carson, Salisbury, South Rowan and West Rowan high schools.
The program, geared toward students who need a flexible schedule to work or take care of their children, runs from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, offering three 50-minutes blocks for students to complete coursework.
Last year, 18 students, many of whom had considered dropping out, graduated high school through the program.
The district’s Learning, Intervention, Nurturing, Knowledge and Student Achievement (LINKS) program, funded through federal grants, has also worked to target at-risk students through counselors and intervention specialists.
“I think that is a big piece to helping the dropout rate,” LINKS program coordinator Carol Ann Houpe said of having counselors and intervention specialist to work with students.
Houpe said social workers at each school monitor at-risk students and help provide a link between the school, community and home.
“When we go out and do a home visit and the family has a need, let’s say they don’t have health insurance, we’re going to help figure out if they qualify for Medicaid,” she said. “We’re going to make sure they know who to call to get the resources they need.”
But Houpe said her program is merely a piece of the puzzle.
“At all the school levels, the staff are doing a whole lot to keep the kids at the school,” she said. “We’re just an extension of that.”
Volunteer mentors and tutors help students from falling behind, as do remediation programs.
High schools offer credit recovery so that students can quickly get back into the swing of the things.
An ‘ongoing battle’
Grissom said although she is pleased with the decrease in dropouts, she won’t rest until all of the district’s students finish school.
“We will continue to focus on individual student needs and provide support mechanisms that will reinforce student interest and engagement in learning,” she said in the press release.
Emerson said decreasing the number of dropouts is hard work, but Rowan County has a lot of people who care about it.
“It’s not easy. It’s an ongoing battle,” he said. “I’m really proud of the work our staff is doing to implement just about everything they can think of to help with this issue.
“They are continually analyzing and studying it and trying to find more ways to keep students in school.”
Kannapolis strategies
Boyd said the slight increase in dropout rate for the Kannapolis City school system doesn’t mean the district’s current strategies aren’t working.
“We’re talking about a difference of three students,” she said. “We weren’t really surprised because we have a dropout prevention team that meets each month and is really zoned in on the dropout rate.”
Boyd said the district will continue to offer mentoring and credit recovering services. She hopes now that the alternative learning program is in full swing, the fruits of that labor will pay off this year.
“We really think what we’re doing is effective in keeping kids in school and giving them the resources that they need,” she said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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