Dropping Back In

Dec 16, 2011

North Carolina’s high school graduation rate is inching up. For the first time last year, the state ranked better than the national average. But still, about 1 in 4 high school students in the state drops out. And in a knowledge-based economy, those without at least a high school diploma are highly likely to struggle the rest of their lives.

It’s quiet in the hallways of the Performance Learning Center in East Durham. But not too quiet. This, everyone says, is just how it is. Quiet in the hallways. Quiet in the main office. Even quiet in the classrooms, where – by design - teachers don’t stand in front of the class and lecture, but instead offer one-on-one guidance to each student as she or he sits in front of a computer.

This is the PLC model. Every student taking whatever online course or courses they need to graduate. So in a single math classroom, one student over here might be taking algebra 2, while a couple others over there are taking calculus, and so on.

Tianna Miles has sat in front of one of these computers for three years. She says she struggled her freshman year at Durham’s Northern High School and by the middle of her sophomore year, she was gone.

Tianna Miles: "It’s too much freedom at Northern. I needed a smaller area, more rules and discipline and stuff. I was kind of bad, a couple years ago."

But Tianna ended up at the Performance Learning Center, because she knew she had to.

Miles: "You need an education to get somewhere in life. They won’t even hire you at McDonald’s without a diploma."

Tianna did fine for a while, and then her father died her senior year and she failed the 12th grade. Her story is like many of the students at PLC. They deal with difficult family lives at home and come here after having already dropped out at one of the large, comprehensive high schools.

Sarah Carucci is a graduation coach at PLC.

Sarah Carucci: "They get what they’re going after. They know that it’s hard. Hard enough to have failed at once. So without PLC, I know that a lot of them would never have had the opportunity to come back, because it’s very rare that students will re-enroll in a traditional school."

There are about 60 Performance Learning Centers across the country. 5 are in North Carolina. They’re public-private partnerships. Durham Public Schools pays for the building and the teachers, while a non-profit group called Communities in Schools pays for graduation coaches and other support personnel.

Bud Lavery is the Durham group’s executive director.

Bud Lavery: "A lot of this idea is to give them a lot more of a small setting, so there’s a very personal relationship side. A lot of time we underestimate how important that connection level is for teenagers. We think they’re trying to get away from the adults, but they actually kind of crave that personal attention."

More than 400 students drop out every year in Durham alone. Most students who leave school never come back. The rate is worse in other places in the state, especially rural areas where programs like this are too expensive.

About 120 students attend the Performance Learning Center in Durham, a couple dozen or so will graduate at various points during the year.

Tianna will be one of them. She repeated the 12th grade this year and will graduate - just as she promised her dying father she would.

Miles: "He died, like, but he already knew that I had failed. But I told him that I was going to pass, so I figured I could go and put everything I had into it, and do it. I’ll be done with school in four days."

After she graduates, Tianna says she plans to work a little while and then attend North Carolina Central and major in child development.