Johnston County high schools saw an uptick in dropouts last year, with Smithfield-Selma High suffering the greatest increase.
The number of students leaving SSS before graduation more than doubled, from 30 in 2013-14 to 62 this past school year. The county’s total number rose to 206 from 182, despite seven high schools recording fewer dropouts than the year before, or none at all.
The dropout rate rose from 1.82 to 1.99 percent of high school students, which superintendent Ed Croom noted was still below the statewide rate of 2.28 percent this past year.
“We’re still not satisfied,” Croom said. “We weren’t satisfied with 182 dropouts, but we’re still below the state average.”
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Of the county’s traditional schools, Corinth Holders had the lowest dropout rate at 0.77 percent of students, and SSS had the highest at 4.73.
Though it had just six dropouts, South Campus High School lost nearly a quarter of its students, while neither Early College nor Middle College saw a student leave before graduation. In 2013-14, Clayton High School saw the most students drop out, but it joined the majority of the county schools in bringing its rate down this past year.
“Some did very well; some saw some challenges,” said Oliver Johnson, assistant superintendent for student services.
Most Johnston students drop out in the 10th grade, and most do so at age 18. Johnston County classrooms are 22 percent Latino and 16 percent black, but among those dropping out of high school, 32 percent are Latino, and 22 percent are black. The vast majority, 84 percent, are identified as “non-English language learners.”
At SSS, the lone Johnston high school to earn a D letter grade from the state, principal Stephen Baker said the school’s dropout rate paints a grimmer picture than reality. Among the school’s 62 dropouts, he said, were 14 students in the second-shift program Spartan Academy, Job Corps or Johnston Community College’s adult high school program. All are pursuing a high school diploma or equivalent, but the state considers them dropouts because they quit a traditional high school.
“Many of these students are in situations they did not create,” added Baker. “There are issues in the family and maybe they had to drop out and support their family; maybe they’re teen parents. ... The traditional dropout situation is the student doesn’t attend school and is failing classes. But for these nontraditional students, they may have been incarcerated or came to this country or became the primary breadwinner of the family. To me, that’s an important distinction.”
Baker said SSS students have graduation coaches, and he said he visits families facing the decision of a student quitting school. Many times, flexibility is the solution, but sometimes, students make poor choices, he said.
“I have found a lot less students are simply not willing to [participate in high school], and it’s my job to try and find a solution, to see how flexible we can be to fit as many needs as possible,” Baker said. “Some are going to make a poor choice, but for many, it’s not just making a poor choice.”
During this week’s Johnston County Board of Education meeting, Croom discussed rumors that North Carolina might raise the legal dropout age from 16 to 18. Some argue the move would reduce poor choices, but not everyone agrees.
“Many think it will actually increase the dropout rate,” Croom said. “It’s a problem when 18-year-olds are just in the ninth grade.”
Baker said he wants a couple of more years with vulnerable students, but he thinks options are the best way to keep kids in school.
“When you start talking to students about the impact choices have on them and ... giving them autonomy, you read about raising expectations and standards,” Baker said. “I think [age] is a symptom of a disease, and we’re treating the symptom instead of the disease. Yes, I want those kids in school, but I still believe in choice theory.”
Baker dismisses socioeconomic challenges in the Smithfield-Selma area as excuses and thinks he has the tools to reverse SSS’s reputation and performance.
“Our teachers can meet their needs and help them perform at a high level,” Baker said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson