College & Workforce Readiness

Rural ‘Dropout Factories’ Often Overshadowed

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 30, 2010 10 min read
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In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains here in the northwest corner of South Carolina, high schools’ attempts to curb student dropouts may not match what many people picture when they hear talk of the nation’s “dropout factories.” Yet one-fifth of the 2,000 high schools nationwide categorized that way by researchers at Johns Hopkins University are in rural areas, some of them small schools where students get a lot of personal attention.

With 50 such schools, South Carolina tops all other states in the number of rural schools on the dropout-factory list, with Georgia and North Carolina not far behind. Nearly half of those South Carolina schools have fewer than 500 students.

Tamassee-Salem Middle and High School here in Oconee County is among them. It has 154 students in grades 9-12 and is located in a town with fewer than 150 people whose commercial area consists of a convenience store, a dollar store, three churches, and a gas station. The school’s challenge of graduating students illustrates that it’s no simple endeavor to help them see the relevance of an education.

Read the report, “Current Challenges and Opportunities in Preparing Rural High School Students for Success in College and Careers: What Federal Policymakers Need to Know,” from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

“We have generational poverty, a lack of aspirations,” said Michael Lucas, the superintendent of the 10,400-student Oconee County school district.

Besides Tamassee-Salem, the county’s West-Oak Senior High School, which enrolls about 1,000 students, is also on the rural dropout-factory list. The district’s two other high schools are rural but didn’t make the cutoff point for the list. The lion’s share of students in all four schools are white, many of them poor. Mr. Lucas said the parents and grandparents of some children in Oconee County didn’t finish high school so many of the current crop of students think, “Why should I?”

Despite such sentiments, the district is working to ensure that children read by 3rd grade to help them be successful over the long term, he said. The district also spent federal economic-stimulus aid this school year on hiring “adequate-yearly-progress coaches” who monitor struggling students and track them down if they miss school. If students fail a class, they can make it up online as part of a credit-recovery program.

In an area with a lot of youths who prefer to work with their hands rather than read books, the county has strong career and technical institutions. The district also runs an alternative school, charged with helping students at risk of dropping out get back on track.

The 2004 report “Locating the Dropout Crisis” first drew attention to a list of about 2,000 high schools that researchers considered to be dropout factories—“an institution that does a good job of systematically producing dropouts,” said Thomas C. West, a University of Chicago researcher who is affiliated with the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, which put out the report.

While most of the attention is on urban high schools with low graduation rates, rural schools also struggle to retain at-risk students.

Since the inception of the list, most of the attention to the nation’s dropout problem has been on urban schools, where the average graduation rate for the class of 2006 was 58.7 percent, compared with 73.1 percent in rural schools, according to Diplomas Count 2009.

Mr. West says the high number of rural dropout factories in South Carolina, likely results from the lack of jobs and persistent poverty. Still, he sees an advantage to working on the dropout crisis in rural vs. urban areas: Schools have fewer students, and “you can put more emphasis on what’s going on in their lives.”

Different Measures

Historically, the inhabitants of Tamassee and Salem could drop out of high school and get jobs in textile mills. But those mills have closed, and the region’s manufacturers of electronic components, fiberglass insulation, and the like want students to earn at least a high school diploma or General Educational Development—GED—certificate, educators here say.

Steve M.R. Moore, the principal of Tamassee-Salem, is not happy with his school’s rate for students graduating in four years, which was 75 percent in 2009. But he implores people to understand what is behind the statistic and to acknowledge steps he and his staff members are taking to increase the rate. They’ve seen some success: In 2007, the rate was 66.7 percent.

“The key is about building relationships and making sure the students can see they can be successful,” Mr. Moore said.

While the Johns Hopkins researchers have highlighted a problem at Tamassee-Salem, others have lauded the school’s accomplishments. In 2007, U.S. News & World Report gave it a bronze award for being one of South Carolina’s best high schools. In 2008, the school was one of 25 in the South to receive a Pacesetter award from the High Schools That Work initiative of the Southern Regional Education Board.

“Unfortunately, people take the dropout-factory label as a stigmatizing term rather than a helpful term,” said Mr. West, noting that the point of the label is to get policymakers to focus on the problem.

The opportunity to learn welding at Hamilton Career Center helps motivate Tyler Galloway to stay in school. The junior considered dropping out because he finds school boring.

“Some schools need total reform; some may just need a lot of help. Some are doing well, but a couple of kids [in them] need extra help,” he said.

Actually, the dropout-factory classification isn’t based on schools’ official dropout rates. At both Tamassee-Salem and West-Oak, the rate reported to the state in 2008 was 5.4 percent.

Mr. West and Robert Balfanz, the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, put a school on the dropout-factory list when, on average over three school years, the number of seniors is 60 percent or less than the number of freshmen at that school three years earlier.

By contrast, the graduation rate that schools report to South Carolina officials according to federal guidelines is the percentage of 9th graders at a school who earn regular high school diplomas and graduate in four years or less. It also includes students who enrolled in 9th grade for the first time elsewhere and then transferred to that school. Special education students who get certificates rather than high school diplomas count against the graduation rate. So do students who left school and then got a GED certificate, or who took more than four years to earn a diploma.

The dropout rate reported to the state applies to a single school year. It refers to students who leave school during that year and don’t transfer to another school.

Future Paths

It’s possible to find dropouts in the district’s adult education program in Seneca trying to get a GED.

One of them is Allen R. Ellis, 17, who attended both West-Oak and Tamassee-Salem high schools. He was expelled from West-Oak Senior High. Later, he attended Tamassee-Salem High but dropped out after a couple of weeks because, he said, the school didn’t recognize how smart he was and told him he’d be able to get only a certificate, not a regular diploma. Because of his lack of high school credits, Mr. Ellis said, it would have taken him until he was 21 to get a diploma, which he found discouraging.

Chris Richardson, 19, works on an essay about life goals in a class to earn his GED. He says he left school in part because of poor relationships with teachers.

He said he had often moved from school to school because his father was in the military and had failed classes because he didn’t do his homework.

With a GED, he said, “I can join the military or go to college a whole lot sooner.” He now works part time in construction.

Another young adult working on a GED, Holly Galbreath, 19, says she doesn’t think administrators and teachers at West-Oak, where she dropped out halfway through her junior year, could have done much to keep her in school.

“I got in with the wrong crowd,” she said. “I started caring more about myself and my having a good time than my education.”

In middle school, she said, she was motivated to keep at least a C average, in order to participate in extracurricular activities, such as cheerleading. But in 10th grade, she said, she dropped extracurricular activities, skipped school, and did drugs. “I was so far behind that it was going to be impossible to catch up,” she said.

But Ms. Galbreath said she now wants to go to college so she can work in a field she enjoys, such as photography. She doesn’t want to work in a factory.

Right now, the adult education program has 59 students who are ages 17 to 19. Steve Willis, its director, said the program serves about 130 students in that age bracket and gives out about 75 GED certificates and 10 high school diplomas to that group each year.

Matt Hunter is not among them. A dropout from West-Oak, he’s not working on a GED and doesn’t expect to return to the classroom. The 22-year-old lives with his girlfriend at his grandparents’ house in Westminster. He’s worked in landscaping before, and from time to time his neighbor pays him cash for helping him repair cars.

His girlfriend, Hali Cannon, 18, graduated from Seneca High School, also in Oconee County, and recently brought in some money working at a doughnut shop.

“I’ve been happy lately,” Mr. Hunter said. “Every time we need money, it pops up.”

Mr. Hunter said he liked math and Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps because the teachers of that class had a sense of humor. But he disliked English class. Back in 5th grade, he had been diagnosed with dyslexia and repeated that grade. While he can read if he has to, he avoids it. As a 10th grader, he was badly injured when a car hit him while he rode a bike. He had to get around West-Oak in a wheelchair, which was difficult.

“Mom said if I wanted to quit, I could,” he said, and he did.

‘Whatever It Takes’

Tamassee-Salem High has a slogan this year of “whatever it takes,” which Candice Brucke, the assistant principal, said means the school’s educators aim to do whatever it takes to ensure each student gets a diploma.

Tamassee-Salem, she noted, is already implementing the six dropout-prevention strategies recommended in a practice guide published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Tamassee-Salem High is deemed a dropout factory.

One of those strategies is assigning advocates to at-risk students.

The school is in its third year of running a program in which well-educated retirees from an affluent community nearby mentor students one on one.

Jane Brosnan, a retired software engineer who designed the program with the principal, said she believes that by providing a listening ear and encouragement, the mentors have helped some students pass their classes.

Tyler Galloway, a student at Tamassee-Salem, thought about leaving school because “I just get bored.” Principal Moore talked with him about sticking it out, he said, and he thinks he will “because I’m so close now.” A junior, Mr. Galloway has passed the state’s high school exit exam and is on track with his classes. He said he’s had some unexcused absences and plans to make them up, a state requirement.

The 17-year-old said the chance to take welding courses at Hamilton Career Center, the district’s career and technical school, has also helped him stay in school. His goal is to get a welding job at Duke Energy, which runs a nuclear-power plant close to Salem.

Mr. Moore said that in his eight years as principal, he’s tried to improve the quality of education at his school. Though the school is too small to offer Advanced Placement classes, he said, students can take such courses at other high schools in the county. Last year, he said, one student took advantage of that option. This year, no one has.

He’s pushed for 8th graders to take algebra, and the school is now offering calculus for the first time in a decade.

An audit last year by a High Schools That Work team found many promising practices at the school. For instance, it had implemented up-to-date technology and ensured that all teachers are certified. The team, however, said it saw a lack of consistency in the use of innovative teaching strategies to engage students.

Maureese Robinson, the director of academic assistance at Tamassee-Salem for middle and high schoolers, works from lists of students who have failed classes or haven’t passed the state’s exit exam to identify those who need extra help. He runs an after-school homework center and Saturday school and stays in touch by phone with parents of struggling students.

“Whether they dropped out or not [themselves], I don’t think any parent wants their kid to drop out of school,” Mr. Robinson said. “I can’t see that in any town. Some have more control over their kids than others.”

Coverage of efforts to promote new routes to college and career success is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Rural ‘Dropout Factories’ Often Overshadowed


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