North Carolina's public schools saw a 12.4 percent decrease in the number of dropouts in 2009-10 - a sign that educators' hard work is paying off, state officials said.
"It did not happen by accident," said Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education.
It was the third straight year of declines in the dropout rate, according to a report presented Thursday to the state board.
At the same time, the number of public school suspensions and expulsions declined, though cases of crime and violence in school increased.
The annual dropout rate was 3.75 percent, down from 4.27 percent the previous year. The rate, which reflects the percentage of students who drop out in a year's time, is the lowest rate for grades 9-12 ever recorded in North Carolina. A total of 16,804 high school students dropped out of school in 2009-10.
State education officials are focusing on keeping students in class and on track to graduate, said June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction.
"It is imperative that we keep this positive momentum going so all students can graduate and find success in college and careers," Atkinson said in a statement.
Several different dropout prevention strategies may have contributed to the positive trend. Among them:
Smaller school settings.
Transition programs for children moving into high school.
Alternative learning opportunities for at-risk students.
North Carolina also has had success with small, innovative schools that offer a career focus or college courses to students while in high school.
One such school is Southern School of Engineering, which had no dropouts in 2009-10.
The Durham school has 205 students enrolled in honors courses with a concentration in science, technology, engineering and math. Students have to apply to the school, so the pool of students is generally self-selected and motivated; 44 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Principal Travis Taylor said the keys to the school's success are its size and its philosophy of personalization. The school tracks individual student achievement monthly and stresses college preparation. Eighty-eight percent go on to college.
"It's something that we preach to them from day one," Taylor said.
If a student's performance suffers and there are signs of trouble, teachers and staff intervene early with persuasive arguments about staying in school. "It's finding that time, more than anything else, to make a connection with a student and really make a difference," Taylor said.
Southern School of Engineering is one of 106 innovative schools supported by the N.C. New Schools Project, which was started in 2003 under former Gov. Mike Easley's administration. The organization received initial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Forty-six of the 106 New Schools Project institutions had no dropouts in 2009-10, including City of Medicine Academy and Hillside New Tech High School in Durham and Johnston County Early College Academy.
More boys leave school
The report made public Thursday showed that 70 percent of the state's school districts had decreases in the numbers of students dropping out. Male students accounted for 59.4 percent of reported dropouts, and students dropped out most frequently in the ninth grade.
The dropout rate declined for all ethnic groups, but there remains a gap between white and Asian students and other minority groups. The worst rates were for black males (5.79 percent), American Indian males (5.65 percent) and Hispanic males (5.34 percent).
Among the report's other findings:
Short-term suspensions decreased 5.5 percent, while long-term suspensions dropped 6.2 percent.
Expulsions declined 24 percent.
Public schools reported 11,608 acts of crime and violence in 2009-10, an increase of 4.4 percent over the previous year. Violent offenses accounted for 4.3 percent. Eighty-six percent involved possession of controlled substances, weapons or alcoholic beverages.
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