Supporting Dropout Prevention in North Carolina's Rural Schools

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Ladd, Helen F

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Executive Summary 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 schools. 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. Research Methodology: 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. Findings: 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.
Recommendations: 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 recipients. 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.
Cost-Neutral Recommendations: (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 be served. (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 research.





Preston, Jennifer (2011). Supporting Dropout Prevention in North Carolina's Rural Schools. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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