Last summer, Joe Eno, who tries to keep kids from dropping out of Johnston County schools, noticed a trend – 80 high school seniors who had dropped out the year before needed only a handful of course credits to gradate.
Eno sent letters to the students’ homes and called them in hopes of luring them back to finish school, mostly through online classes. Since June, Eno said, 62 students have returned. Twenty-three have graduated.
Programs like this are leading to fewer kids dropping out of school, Eno said. Last school year, 3.28 percent of Johnston students quit, down from 3.71 percent the year before. Mirroring a statewide trend, the numbers have been declining for years. In 2007, 5.39 percent of Johnston students dropped out.
The GRADUATE! program that reaches out to dropouts who only need up to five credits was supposed to last only one year, but Eno said it will continue because it has been so successful.
“I just think that nurturing them back to school was the reason they came back,” Eno said of students and the individual attention they received.
He said other methods also are making a difference. Johnston schools track attendance, grades and behavior of students in kindergarten through high school. Problems in those areas are often predictors of dropouts, Eno said.
Students who are identified as at risk of dropping out can get tutoring, counseling services and extra support.
The first step in reducing dropout rates is identifying the students who likely could drop out, Eno said. And that starts way before high school; students’ literacy skills in elementary school are a factor.
“We knew we couldn’t go too far without knowing who we are talking about, who is at risk,” Eno said.
In the alternative graduation program, students over the age of 19 who still need a lot of credits to reach Johnston’s 28-credit requirement can meet the lower state requirement instead.
And community supports like the Yes I Can youth program through Johnston County Industries helps at-risk students find jobs and acquire skill certifications through Johnston Community College, Eno said.
Last year’s dropout rate of 3.28 percent in Johnston fell just below the statewide rate of 3.43 percent and Wake County’s rate of 3.25.
Johnston’s figure was below many surrounding counties, including Durham, Harnett, Sampson, Wayne and Wilson. Wake County, Orange County and Chapel-Hill Carrboro school systems fared better than Johnston.
Some local schools have seen huge drops in the number of students who quit school. Since 2007, the dropout rate at Smithfield-Selma High School has nearly been cut in half, from 8 percent in 2007 to 4.25 percent last year.
At South Johnston High, fewer than 4 percent of students dropped out last year, down from 6 percent in 2007.
West Johnston had the lowest rate, with 1.9 percent last year, compared with 3.6 percent four years before. North Johnston had the highest rate among traditional high schools, with 4.65 percent.
South Campus, which is an alternative school for students with behavior issues, had a rate of 65 percent.
At Smithfield-Selma, freshman academies have helped to keep students in school, said student advocate Ron Speier.
Ninth-graders are most at risk of dropping out, Speier said, so it’s crucial “to keep them from falling through the cracks.”
As part of the freshman academy, teachers, social workers and advocates work together to come up with ways to best serve students’ individual needs.
Also, students who don’t pass the ninth-grade have the chance to make up work to become sophomores by the middle of the school year.
Students who are retained are often more likely to drop out, Speier said.
He said he makes sure students know how education can make a difference in their lives, including their wallets.
A high school dropout earns an average of less than $17,000 a year, Speier said, compared to $24,500 for those who earn a diploma.
Someone who holds an associate’s degree earns an average of $32,000, he said.
In this economy, Speier said, those numbers can serve as important reminders. “Even our students who are enrolled are having a tough time getting jobs,” Speier said.
Eno said he expects dropout rates to continue to decline. “I think that we have a long way to go, and people know that,” he said.
“But the passion is there from the adults.”