North Carolina’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high at about 83 percent. State education leaders credit several reasons: early college high school, career counseling, credit recovery programs–just to list a few.
NPR Ed recently partnered with several member stations, including WUNC, to dig into why graduation rates have been climbing. The answer isn’t an easy one – many schools use thoughtful, long-term strategies, while others rely more heavily on alternate, and often easier, routes for struggling students.
In Clinton, N.C., school leaders hired Louie Boykin to serve as the district’s dropout prevention coach.
His job? Convince students to stay in school and graduate.
“We’re going into the city of Clinton to look for some students who have dropped out,” Boykin says as he walks out of the school one afternoon.
On this day, like many others, he gets into his car in search of teenagers who’d rather be anywhere but class.
“This is small town, USA… 10,000 people: Population,” he says, pointing to his street.
Clinton is in Sampson County, about an hour away from both Wilmington and Raleigh. Some of the biggest industries involve slaughtering hogs and building escalators. Farming is a big deal here and so are high school sports.
Within three minutes of driving around, Boykin waves hello to his old sixth-grade teacher and points to his cousin’s car wash. Then, he turns to a different part of town.
“This was the dividing line, this street right here, for segregation, white and black one time. This is where I’m from. And it’s still pretty much predominantly African-American down here,” he explains.
Boykin’s upper body is crouched over the wheel. He’s sporting school colors with a black and gold vest, and squints through his glasses.
“Some of our students, when they drop out…this is where I come, to this area. I knock on their doors and say ‘Where is so and so? I was looking for him to come to school.'"
‘The Tragedy of Dropping Out’
But as he drives down one street, there’s no need to knock. He spots a young man sitting on his wooden porch.
“Sterling what’s happening. What’s good with you?” he shouts from his car.
Sterling Banks is 19. He makes his way to Boykin’s car, lifting the black headphones from his ears so they rest on his shoulders.
“What are you doing nowadays?” Boykin asks.
“Just chillin’, chillin’,” he responds.
Banks was just released from jail, charged with drug-related offenses.
“Just looking for a job and chillin’,” he says.
“It’s hard to look for a job without a high school diploma, ain’t it?” Boykin retorts.
Banks dropped out from high school when he was 16.
“I had a little problem in school and I was kind of bad, it wasn’t working on me for the time,” Banks says. “And I had a lot going on. I was on juvenile probation at the time.”
He used to work at a poultry plant and is now looking for a job at Burger King. Boykin tells Banks to say hi to his older brother, who did graduate.
“Yeah, nothing to do. That’s the tragedy of dropping out,” Boykin says as he drives away.
Boykin has helped at least 40 students in the last few years either stay in school or come back. Like many other parts of the state, the graduation rate here is slowly climbing. Boykin says some students end up dropping out because of family problems, and they want to make money. About a third of Clinton residents live below the poverty line.
Other students have just been itching to leave since middle school.
Later in the afternoon, Boykin comes across 18-year-old James Ashe. He happens to be hanging out with Banks. Dropouts hang out with dropouts, Boykin explains.
“It’s an everyday thing, just chilling, nothing to do really,” says Ashe, holding a Wendy’s cup.
But unlike his friend, Ashe is tired. He recently called Boykin asking if he could come back to school.
“There’s nothing out here, you just be bored, just walking the streets, doing nothing, everybody getting in trouble. I just need something positive in my life and to find a better job, I guess,” Ashe says.
Ashe wants to go into construction. He could’ve graduated this month had he not quit school last year. Boykin tell him he looks different now. He wears glasses and looks more focused.
“You know I’ll be there for you, as long as you’re in the right. So stay focused. When school starts back in August, you’re coming back to graduate,” Boykin says.
At-Risk Students Take Fewer Credits
And to help make that happen, Boykin has a plan. He’ll allow him to graduate with fewer credits than most of his peers.
Like some alternative schools and many other school districts, Clinton runs a program that lets a handful of struggling students focus on completing only what’s required by the state, and the not the school district. So instead of taking 28 credits, they can finish with just 22.
State officials from the Department of Public Instruction say they don't collect data on just how prevalent these policies are, but that, anecdotally, it's common.
District school leaders say letting struggling students focus only on the bare minimum state requirements increases the chances they’ll graduate and, as a result, earn a decent wage once they hit the workforce. The few local requirements they often pass on are elective courses.
“If they knew they had to come back and take the required 28 courses they wouldn’t come back because that would set them at least two years behind, so they wouldn’t come back, they would give up,” explains Boykin, who helps roughly 15 students each year take this alternate route.
Qualifications for these programs are sometimes broad – students need to show that something in their lives, whether it’s social or academic, is preventing them from performing well. Elizabeth Carter, 21, qualified because she dropped out and previously failed some courses.
She quit school two years ago after rushing into a marriage. Her new trailer home was too far from the bus route, so counselors began driving her back and forth to school.
“And I just decided I didn’t want to be a burden on nobody, so I just quit,” she says.
Her relationship went sour and she spent the next year-and-a-half lounging around, not doing much. Eventually, she visited her old school to help enroll her younger sister. There, she ran into Boykin who told her she could graduate in a semester if she came back.
“And I was like, I’m kind of old, wouldn’t these people be like ‘dang, you know, she’s old, and she’s here.’ Then I talked with my mom about it and she was like you should go because it’s free,” she says.
So last semester, she took a Math and English class in the morning and worked at KFC in the afternoon. And she passed. Because of the lighter course load, she can’t attend a four-year state university. But she’ll go to a community college in the fall.
“I think I did good, I’m proud of myself, my mama tells me that every day,” she says with a smile.
After community college, she wants to attend a four-year university to fulfill a dream she’s held onto since she was 11: to study Cuban cuisine and cook for a living.