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Novel Program Keeps N.C. Students in School

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An innovative dropout-prevention program in North Carolina is helping the state reach its goal of lowering the dropout rate while simultaneously acquainting students with the world of work.

After operating on a trial basis last year in eight high schools, the Job Placement Centers program is getting under way in 77 of the state's 400 high schools this year. Funded with monies provided under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (ceta), the program is designed to identify "high-risk" students, provide them with jobs, and teach them the skills they need to be employable.

The program is one of several strategies that state and local officials are using to keep students in school. Currently, about 22 percent of the students who enter the 9th grade and do not move out of the state leave school before earning a diploma, according to state officials.

(Methods of calculating dropout rates vary from state to state; the national rate is about 25 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)

Other strategies include "extended-day" programs, in which students who must work during the day may attend classes outside of normal school hours; accelerated programs operated in cooperation with community colleges; and "in-school suspension" programs that give students one-to-one instruction, according to Jerome H. Melton, deputy state superintendent for public instruction.

State education officials have been focusing on the dropout problem for about six years, but the issue now has a champion in another branch of the government.

In an announcement made early this year, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. said he would make lowering the dropout rate one of his major concerns during his final two years in office. Since the program will have to be supported with state or local funds after ceta funding runs out at the end of the school year, the Governor's support may be especially welcome.

Income Guidelines

In part because many students drop out of school for economic reasons--their earnings are needed to help support their families--the Job Placement Centers focus on economically disadvantaged students. In order to be eligible for the program, they must meet the ceta income guidelines, according to J.W. Knight, assistant director of ceta education programs in the department of public instruction.

"We don't guarantee them a job, but we work with them to see if they are employable, and help them to become employable," Mr. Knight said.

The structure of the program varies from school to school. At King's Mountain High School, for example, Anita M. Campbell, the job-placement specialist, sees each student individually as often as necessary. Some of the students have a history of disciplinary and academic problems; others do not. But all are economically disadvantaged, which makes them statistically more likely to drop out of school.

Working together, Ms. Campbell and each student decide what the student's goals and needs are, she said.

"I tell them, 'By the time you leave here, I want you to know what your direction is,"' she said. She expects to work with about 50 students this year and hopes that by the end of the school year each one will have at least one work experience.

Even if they work only at odd jobs--raking leaves, for example--the student can still say, "I know what it's like to work," Ms. Campbell said.

At Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, Aleen Davis, the student-assistance officer, meets daily with a class of 40 students who range in age from 16 to 20 years old. In all of the programs, students learn skills that will make them employable. These include how to write a resume, how to act during a job interview, and how to identify and strengthen their own abilities.

Ms. Davis said that trying to provide students with a job (which is not always possible in the currently poor job market) is only one aspect of the program. Changing students' attitudes, she suggested, is another key factor in keeping them in school. "That's where the basic problem is," she said. "We do a lot of building up of attitudes."

Many of the students who enroll in the program have done poorly in their schoolwork. Others have told guidance counsellors that they "hated school." Some have a history of poor attendance and poor grades. For these students, the program offers a "support group" that can make it easier for them to remain in school.

Those who have participated in the program have responded well, according to state and local officials. "We think it's working," said Mr. Melton.

Statistics from the centers that operated last year also suggest that the program is fulfulling its mission. Ninety-eight percent of the 4,520 economically disadvantaged students who were enrolled remained in school; 34 percent of these students were placed in unsubsidized private-sector jobs.

Ms. Davis said that some students have told her that they have stayed in school only because they could participate; others report that they no longer skip school because they know someone is paying attention to their attendance habits. Some, Ms. Davis said, have said the class is the only one they attend where they know someone is really pulling for them.

"We've had a tremendous decrease in the dropout rate," she said, and school officials give much of the credit for the change to the program.

"I think it's great," said Ms. Campbell. "I think we need it for all the students."

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