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School board debates dropout rates, attendance policy

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Sometimes, there’s nothing more that can be done.

During a fiery discussion on school dropout rates Monday, members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education rose to the defense of staff and teachers.

The discussion came after a Jan. 26 state report showing that the distict had one of the state’s largest percentage increases in dropout rates over a three-year period.

“Our numbers are only as good as our data entry for this,” said Eisa Cox, executive director of secondary education.

Staff members said the system has recently improved its data entry and tracking for dropouts; they say that’s the real reason behind the percentage hike.

And Cox said it’s not uncommon for a student to leave school, decide to come back, then leave again. Those students are counted as dropouts twice.

Since attendance was the No. 1 reason listed for students choosing to leave school, she and other staff recommended addressing the school system’s attendance policy. A new policy could set a minimum number of missed days per semester and stipulate the formation of a committee to review each student’s case.

“Because attendance is No. 1, I think we need to address attendance again,” Cox said.

Superintendent Lynn Moody said the administration had already planned to amend the policy but pushed the matter forward after the release of the dropout report.

But board members wondered if the change is necessary in the wake of the report.

“I don’t mean to sound like an uncaring thought, but I don’t see what our administration can do more than they’re doing,” board member Travis Allen said. “I don’t see what this board could have done more than we’re doing. … I think sometimes it just is what it is. I don’t think you should take blame for things you can’t control.”

The system already has numerous intervention programs in place for struggling students, including intervention specialists, home visits and night school options.

Dropout rates, Allen said, are a “picture of what’s going on in our community,” including high unemployment and poverty and the state of family structures. Teachers and administration shouldn’t feel the need to take blame for those factors, he said.

Vice Chairwoman Susan Cox agreed.

“I think the system is conditioned to take blame, and I think it needs to stop. … We as a system cannot control if a student chooses to come to school,” she said.

Board member Richard Miller asked how the school system’s graduation rate and dropout rate could increase at the same time. Moody cited dropouts who are counted twice and closer data tracking. She said she doesn’t believe the rate has actually changed, but the system is documenting it better.

“I don’t think we’re doing a better job or a worse job, in our opinion,” she said.

Board Chairman Josh Wagner said it seems as though the administraiton and the board feel they have to take action because of the report.

“There is nothing that would lead me to believe that a student is dropping out because they’ve been allowed to miss too many days,” he said. “It can be one or 100. They drop out. They left. It’s not a policy issue. They don’t want to be here anymore.”

Wagner said he isn’t saying that dropouts don’t matter but merely pointing out that most of the reasons students give for leaving school — including emotional and mental problems, pregnancy, incarceration or choosing to get a job — have nothing to do with school itself.

“Teachers deal with enough,” Wagner said. “I’m so fed up with us feeling like we always have to react because it’s the teacher’s fault. It’s not. This is not the teacher’s fault.”

Board members asked if there is any wording in the previous policy that would prevent the formation of a committee or using a reduction in grade as a disciplinary action for excessive absences.

Secondary education director Cox said teachers and principals feel the policy amendment could benefit some students. And the system added the eight-day limit in hopes of convincing some students not to skip classes if they know they are nearing the limit.

Moody clarified that the amendment was something principals wanted, and she said now seems a good time to bring it forward.

“I regret that we tied these two things together. I think we misled you,” she said. “I don’t think anyone on staff believes for a minute that this policy will change our dropout rates.”

The board agreed to address the policy again at its Feb. 27 business meeting.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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