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Dropouts Bring New Problems to N.C. Community Colleges

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Special to Education Week

A statewide solution to the problem of high school dropouts in North Carolina has left some community colleges there feeling dumped on.

High school students at risk of dropping out are transferring to community colleges in record numbers, leading some college officials to feel they are running de facto alternative high schools.

"Prior to 1990, our typical student would be a veteran or a housewife, or someone that was laid off and wanted training to get better employed," said Suellyn Dalton, the director of basic-skills programs at Alamance Community College in Burlington. "Now we have these people who are much younger and whose needs and behaviors are very different."

Unlike most states, adult-education programs in North Carolina are run through through community colleges rather than high schools. Although the charters of community colleges there have always allowed high school dropouts age 16 and up to enroll, few students took that option until two recent policy shifts in the state.

In 1987, North Carolina lawmakers passed a dropout-referral law that requires public schools to counsel dropouts on options for finishing their educations, including transferring to a community college. State regulations were then changed so that high schools would not be required to count these transfers as dropouts.

"It makes the K-through-12 schools look better because it looks like the [students have] transferred," said Linda Douglas, the public-affairs director for the North Carolina Community College System.

John Wilson, the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union, agreed.

"I really think that's unfair to community colleges," he said. "When it comes to students that are 18 or younger, that's the responsibility of the public schools."

These younger students are enrolling in the system's basic-skills programs, which allow students to earn a high school diploma, rather than the continuing-education programs that lead to degrees.

Since 1989, the number of students ages 16 to 24 in basic-skills programs has jumped from 42,193 to 55,649, according to state data.

North Carolina community colleges enroll about 758,000 students. About 121,000 of those are in basic-skills programs.

Guns and Beepers

The policy provides potential dropouts with an important option for continuing their educations, supporters say.

"What it did was force school systems to not just wash their hands of the dropouts," said Olivia Oxendine, who oversees dropout prevention for the state education department.

But the growing number of younger transfer students has brought dramatic changes to the makeup of the student population at individual community colleges, particularly those in urban areas.

At Alamance, Ms. Dalton's staff soon faced a host of new problems as younger students bragged about the weapons they brought to school or left classes to respond to messages on their electronic pagers.

"They are actually alienating our current student population," Ms. Dalton said.

At Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, the average age of basic-skills students has plummeted from about 30 to 18, said Paula Montague, the evening director of the college's adult high school.

"Society has changed, and a lot of the young kids that are coming through now have some serious problems that community colleges just are not designed to answer," she said.

In response, some colleges have tightened their admissions policies for teenagers. Durham Technical Community College has refused to enroll minors.

"The community colleges were established to serve adults, and the [state education] code really spells out that only adults can be enrolled without special permission," said Ruth Lewis, an assistant dean at Durham Tech.

Colleges Respond

High school students suspended for disciplinary problems now must wait six months before transferring to Wake Tech. The Wake County public school system eased some of the burden by allowing more flexibility in its attendance policy, which used to fail any student with more than 10 absences a semester.

"We had students who were in high school in the morning and then would be with us that afternoon," Ms. Montague said.

Not all community colleges in the state have felt such pressure. In the state's rural middle region, only 220 of about 4,000 basic-skills students at Central Carolina Community Community are minors, said Don Buie, the school's dean of continuing and public-service education.

"We don't try to recruit, and we try to tell the student that the best place for a minor student is at the regular school," said Mr. Buie, whose school has adjusted to the slight increase in the number of teenagers by barring them from the campus game room and basketball court.

But other colleges face more substantial retooling, Ms. Oxendine said.

Change for Change's Sake

"I can appreciate the dilemma they may feel they're in, because their mission is not to serve as a kind of junior secondary school and they're not geared up for it," she said. "If I were president of a community college in North Carolina, what I would do is spend some resources and time working on developing an alternative high school model."

Ms. Montague and others say the transfer policy merely shifts the burden of dealing with dropouts to the community colleges without attacking the problems that cause students to drop out.

"If a kid dropped out of high school and nothing has changed with his life, he's going to drop out with us," Ms. Montague said. "So the high schools do not have to count that kid as a dropout, but we do, and our numbers go down."

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