Thousands of robed and tasseled students will pick up their high school diplomas this month from community colleges, though they'll show up as dropouts in state statistics.
But a growing number of state legislators and education leaders want students who seek high school credentials from community colleges to be counted as if they had finished at local high schools. Legislators have talked for years about changing dropout counts to include those students.
The big push came this year from Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school officials who say the dropout numbers don't count students who intend to complete high school-level work, said Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Charlotte Democrat who sponsored the bill.
"Part of it is the stigma issue," she said. "Most of these schools have students of high poverty, are more diverse schools. They feel like they're always being attacked when it comes to numbers. If there is data out there such as this that could in some way show they are doing something positive, they would like to have that."
The bill did not make it out of either chamber for the legislature's self-imposed deadline for non-money legislation, but it kept boiling the years-long debate over how to define a high school graduate.
The state and the nation are focused on improving graduate rates. About 30 percent of the state's high school freshmen won't graduate four years later. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, states and schools are required to report their graduation rates.
Cotham said she does not want to artificially lower the dropout rate, and doubted that counting students who go to community college will make much difference in the numbers.
According to the state community college office, 2,279 students received adult high school diplomas last year, and about 13,000 earned GEDs.
Historically, states have differed in how they calculate dropouts, said Lyndsay Pinkus, the director of strategic initiatives for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy group based in Washington. But in recent years, there's been a move to uniform reporting, she said, with more states sticking to the federal guideline of counting only students who earn a traditional high school diploma within four years.
Still, a handful of states count students who earn GEDs or adult diplomas as high school graduates, according to a national survey by the alliance.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education tightened rules on how states count dropouts.
The legislative proposal has bipartisan support from House members from across the state, but stalled, Cotham said, because of questions about how to keep track of students once they leave high school.
Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College, said he was worried about the "unintended consequences" of opening the door wider to students who leave their local high schools without diplomas.
"We want to make sure that students don't see this as an easy option if they get upset with someone at their high school," he said. "We don't have the space. We don't have the resources."
State superintendent June Atkinson, who supports the effort to stop counting adult high school diploma students as dropouts, said the state will soon be able to keep track of what happens to students using unique identification numbers.
Students in adult high school programs take state-sanctioned courses that lead to diplomas signed by local school district officials and community college leaders. Atkinson said the adult high school diplomas are one way the state matches education to student needs.
Forty-one community colleges offer programs leading to high school diplomas under agreements with local school districts. But the requirements for a traditional diploma and an adult high school diploma don't always match. For example, a student must complete 28 credits to receive a diploma from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school, but only 20 for an adult high school diploma from Central Piedmont Community College.
It takes 20 credits to earn a high school diploma at Wake Technical Community College and 28 from Johnston Community College.
The eight credit difference is one reason Sam Cawthorn, who lives in Clayton, decided to enroll at Wake Tech rather than JCC.
Cawthorn, 18, said he dropped out of Clayton High School in the first semester of his sophomore year. He was in constant trouble at school and at home. He attended a private school in Pittsboro for 15 months before moving back home. At Wake Tech, Cawthorn said, he can work at his own pace and in an atmosphere where he can focus on his assignments.
"I don't do good at public school at all," he said. "Everybody is expected to learn at the same rate."
Pinkus said adults who enroll in GED and alternative diploma programs should be applauded, but states should not be able to count them as having stayed in traditional schools.
Graduation in four years is a clean and simple measure, she said. Even if students go on to get alternative diplomas, she said, "that doesn't change the fact that the school didn't reach a specific goal."
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