CLAYTON -- For many high school students, school is a chance to prepare for college, be a part of clubs and sports teams, and even to be social with friends, but for some students, high school is a hurdle that seems too high to conquer, even when the desire is there.
Last week, the Johnston County school system reported the dropout rate for high school students dropped from 3.28 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to 2.65 percent in 2011-2012. A total of 249 high school students dropped out in 2011-2012, compared to 303 in the previous school year. The 17.8 percent decrease is better than the state decrease of 12.1 percent.
Celene Lopez, of Selma, is one of the students who could have been left on the sidelines.
Entering her senior year of high school at Smithfield Selma High, Lopez knew she wouldn’t be able to make it to her classes, much less turn in her work. “I wasn’t really going to school because I couldn’t sometimes make it since I got pregnant,” said Lopez. She had to drop out. But, a program called Project Graduate, organized by the Johnston County School System, gave her another chance to get her diploma. “Actually it was much better because you can work at your own pace and finish faster,” Lopez said. Now, with her two-month-old in tow, she will be graduating with the rest of her class at Smithfield Selma High School in June.
Project Graduate is for students who’ve dropped out who are five credits away or less from graduating. Students in the program can log onto computers provided by the schools that allow them to do the work when they can, and to graduate in an accelerated manner.
Project Graduate is one of the many programs offered by the Johnston County School system to prevent dropouts, and it has proven to be successful.Dr. Oliver Johnson, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services, said the reduced number of dropouts is a result of an increased effort countywide to work with students in danger of quitting school.
“The main program was hiring student advocates, or dropout prevention coordinators.” He said five years ago the county school system received a grant that allowed them to hire one student advocate at each high school. “They shepherd a group of at-risk students through high school and toward graduation,” said Johnston. “Essentially they keep an eye on students who have concerns or who have issues, have difficulties at home, socially and academically.”
In 2010, the school system dipped into its own pocketbook to hire a student advocate at each of the middle schools that feeds into Smithfield Selma High, which has consistently had the highest drop out rate.
More than one way out
According to Joseph Eno, Director of Student Services, the transition from middle school to high school is a crucial time to reach out to students who may be on the verge of dropping out.
“Some students are really not prepared for the next stage,” Eno said. “They begin to fade out in middle school but make the decision at the high school level.” He said, for the high school students who drop out, most of them have been held back and required to repeat a grade level one, two or even three times.
One student who Eno reached out to went from being a highschool dropout to an assistant manager of a restaurant. Bethany Scott, 20, dropped out of highschool at North Johnston High when she was 16 after her mom passed away, and she became pregnant. “Joe Eno called me one day and asked me if I wanted to finish school,” said Scott. “He provided me all of the resources and everything I needed to finish school.” Within four months, she finished the program. Two weeks after receiving her diploma, she landed a job working at Western Sizzlin’. And within a year, she was promoted to be assistant manager. “He convinced me I’d be able to provide a better life for my daughter if I graduated.” Scott described Project Graduate as a “miracle program.” “If not for that I would not have graduaed.”
Ron Speier works as a student advocate at Smithfield-Selma High School. He goes door-to-door tracking down students who’ve dropped out and tells them about the programs that could help them graduate and get back on track.
“We know if they fail ninth grade, they probably won’t graduate, so we want to give them a leg up,” Speier said. Through programs like the Alternative Graduation Program, students who are at-risk of dropping out are required to complete less credits than the typical high school curriculum requires. The credits that are reduced include only electives.
“They get the same diploma, not a water-downed version,” Speier said. “They’re not looking at a tunnel and seeing a train coming, they’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.” The Evening Academy is another program offered at every high school in the county now. It offers classes through an online program and can be completed at a student’s own pace. Since it is an accelerated program, students who have been required to repeat grades in the past can work their way back to being in the same class as their friends again.
“We try to take down all barriers including classroom walls, attendance and drama,” said Speier. “Some of the students may live adult lives, not kid lives, they have kids, bills to pay, they need to put food on the table.”