North Carolina’s Race to the Top proposal outlines plans to increase the state’s graduation
rate to 86 percent by the 2016 – 2017 school year. In order to reach that goal, graduation
rates will need to rise in counties throughout the state, including in the state’s
many rural communities. Race to the Top has the potential to bring increased attention
and funding to the issues of high school graduation and dropout prevention. Even
before the federal Department of Education selected North Carolina as a Race to the
Top recipient state, North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue had underscored the importance
of high school graduation in her “Career & College: Ready, Set, Go! Every Child a
Graduate” education agenda.
In light of this focus on high school graduation, the policy question for this report
is: how should the State of North Carolina prevent students in rural areas from dropping
out of high school? I make recommendations for how the General Assembly, the State
Board of Education, and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI)
can take action to increase graduation rates in rural communities.
The Dropout Challenge in North Carolina and Resulting Problems for the State:
Only 74.2 percent of the students who entered high school in 2006 – 2007 in North
Carolina graduated four years later. About 65 percent of black students, 60 percent
of Hispanic students, and 80 percent of white students graduate from high school in
North Carolina each year. While much discussion in education policy centers on the
achievement gap between the performance of white students and their African American
and Latino peers, a “graduation gap” persists as well. A gap also exists between
the graduation rate for males (70 percent) and females (79 percent).
The dropout challenge poses a series of problems for the state. North Carolina loses
billions in future income and personal wealth when students leave high school. Additionally,
the state bears additional expenses for healthcare and crime costs that result when
students drop out of high school.
Legal problems exist as well. The North Carolina State Constitution guarantees a
“sound basic education” to all children in the state. In 1997, the State Supreme
Court held in Leandro v. North Carolina State Supreme Court that low-income students
in the state were not receiving the education that they were promised. One piece
of evidence used to make this ruling was the low graduation rates in many of the state’s
There is also a public sentiment that providing an education for young people is simply
“the right thing to do.” High school dropouts have negative life outcomes in a number
of areas; particularly troubling is the fact that dropouts are more likely to be low-income
and members of ethnic minorities.
The state’s rural areas tend to face more of a struggle to keep their students in
high school. Rural schools often have less funding than their urban counterparts,
usually because of lower property values in rural areas. Rural school districts must
spend more of their limited funds to transport students spread over a large geographic
area to and from school. It is more difficult for rural schools to find highly qualified
and effective teachers to support students and teach the elective and advanced courses
that interest and challenge students. Rural areas are less likely than urban areas
to be home to community organizations that work to keep students in school, especially
during out-of-school hours and the summer.
North Carolina’s Policies on Dropout Prevention and Rural Schools:
North Carolina currently provides specialized support to its rural schools and districts.
Rural school districts are eligible for the Small County Supplemental Funding stream.
The NCDPI’s District and School Transformation Division provides support for school
improvement in the state’s lowest-performing rural school districts.
With respect to dropout prevention, in 2007, the North Carolina General Assembly
established the Joint Legislative Commission on Dropout Prevention and High School
Graduation to review dropout prevention in the state, including a review of programs
in place and research on best practices. The legislature also created the Committee
on Dropout Prevention and appropriated funding for the Committee to support dropout
prevention programs run by school districts, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.
While the NCDPI was the administrative home and pass-through for the funds, the General
Assembly required that the agency remain detached from the grant process. The Committee,
with certain guidance from the General Assembly, was solely responsible for the selection
of grant recipients.
I first conduct a literature review of best practices in dropout prevention programs.
This knowledge provides a critical base of information for my examination of the strategies
and characteristics of successful dropout prevention programs in rural North Carolina.
I determine the effectiveness of dropout programs operating in rural areas by analyzing
program goals and outcome data as reported by the programs and EDSTAR, the research
group selected by the state to evaluate the dropout prevention grants. I gauge effectiveness
by assessing the quality of each goal through a consideration of its rigor, the percentage
of students it strives to affect, and whether the goal is ambitious enough to place
at-risk students on a trajectory to graduation. I next calculate the percentage of
students that met each of the programs’ targets.
Next, I compare the programs I consider effective and contrast them with the ineffective
programs. Using evaluation reports, I assemble descriptive information (including
the type of agency administering the program and services provided), goals and progress
(including data used to target students for services and evaluate success), and implementation
details (including activities to encourage high school graduation among non-targeted
students and coordination with existing programs or services) for each program. I
also use economic research on rural counties in North Carolina to examine how their
economic health affects high school graduation rates.
The literature on dropout prevention programs highlights some key dropout prevention
strategies that have shown to be effective through rigorous program evaluations.
These strategies include strong support relationships between adults and at-risk students,
intervention during the ninth grade (including ninth grade academies), increased rigor
of coursework, meaningful remediation, the use of sophisticated data systems, an emphasis
on early childhood education, and public awareness of the link between early childhood
education and dropout prevention, and school wide-reform.
My review dropout prevention programs in rural areas in North Carolina indicates that
effective programs that specifically target at-risk students, provide them with structured
activities when they are not in school, and mandate the creation of individualized
graduation plans for students. In addition, programs run by schools or school districts,
especially those also undertaking school-wide reform, tend to be more effective than
programs run by community organizations or other government agencies.
My recommendations for the State of North Carolina fall into three categories: recommendations
that require funding (either through new funds or the reallocation of funding from
other areas of the budget), recommendations that are cost-neutral, and recommendations
that focus on changes to the rubric for the selection of dropout prevention grant
Recommendations that Require Funding:
(1) The General Assembly should allocate funding to Communities in Schools of North
Carolina to provide graduation coaches throughout North Carolina.
(2) The General Assembly should create a competitive funding stream for high schools
that wish to implement a school-wide reform model.
(1) The State Board of Education should require school districts to use the Education
Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) to identify students at-risk of dropping out
and require the creation of personalized graduation plans for these students.
(2) The NCDPI’s Division of School and District Transformation should specifically
include increasing graduation rates as a part of the system of support that it provides
for all schools in partner districts.
(3) The NCDPI should take the lead on the creation of a P-20 Council for the State
of North Carolina. Once the Council has been created, a subset of members should
serve on a Committee on Dropout Prevention to identify areas for cross-agency collaboration
to keep students in school.
(4) The NCDPI should publish a best practices guide similar to South Carolina’s At-Risk
Student Implementation Guide.
Recommendations for Changes to the Dropout Prevention Grants Selection Rubric:
(1) Include a row under “Part C: Description of the Program/Initiative” to evaluate
the extent to which the program uses resources to recruit staff or volunteers who
develop strong relationships with students and train those staff members or volunteers
how to fully support students.
(2) Include a row under “Part C: Description of the Program/Initiative” to evaluate
the extent to which the program is a part of a school-wide reform initiative designed
to improve student outcomes.
(3) Under Part B: Description of Target Students, rewrite descriptors so that a program
that receives five points on the second row must use EVAAS to identify students to
(4) Under Part F: Community Input and Collaboration, require non-school or local education
agency applicants to include a letter of support from the applicable school or district
in order to receive four or five points for this section.
(5) Under Part D: Description of Best Practices, rewrite descriptors so that a program
that receives four or five points for this section must include evidence of best practice