09/25/07 — Atkinson focusing on graduation rates

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Atkinson focusing on graduation rates

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 25, 2007 1:59 PM

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told the Wayne County Democratic Party Monday night that she has one simple goal.

She wants to keep North Carolina's students engaged, in school and graduating on time.

Statewide, for the 2006-07 school year, the four-year graduation rate was 69.4 percent -- up 1.1 percent from 2005-06.

In Wayne County the 2006-07 four-year graduation rate was 71.65 percent, up from 61.5 percent in 2005-06.

But for Mrs. Atkinson, that's not good enough.

"It's up from last year, and that's good, but it will require all of us to keep pushing forward and supporting public education," she said. "The 1.4 million students we have in our schools will be competing in a global economy and they will need the best education possible."

One solution, she said, is to raise the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18, which is something the state legislature is currently studying.

"Some people say it won't work, but it's at least a symbol -- a symbol saying it's unacceptable to leave school when you're 16," she said. "We need to continue pushing for that."

However, she continued, local school districts shouldn't rely on the state to keep their students in school.

"In the 21st century, our greatest challenge is to graduate all of our students, not just some. Our economy cannot handle students who have not at least graduated high school," Mrs. Atkinson said. "All of us need to be conscious about our graduation rates. We need to plant that seed that it's important to graduate."

But, she continued, in order to meet that challenge, schools must begin to change.

"We have to make sure (education) is relevant. We have to answer, 'Why do we have to learn this stuff?'" Mrs. Atkinson said. "And we have to go beyond, 'It's going to be on the test.'"

It will, she explained, take a lot of work, requiring schools to not only expand their course offerings, but also integrate technology more fully and more efficiently into every classroom.

"We are looking at the curriculum in grades kindergarten through 12 to see how it needs to be changed to reflect the skills needed in the 21st century," she said. "We need our students to be creative and to be able to create and invent those things we have never heard of."

That means not only figuring out what new types of classes might be needed, but also how to incorporate other skills, such as financial management, into existing classes like math.

It also means finding ways to offer the same variety of classes to every student in the state, whether through traditional classrooms, or programs like the virtual high school, which allows students to connect online.

Still, Mrs. Atkinson stressed, it's not just the academic side of school that needs to change. It's also the vocational side.

Unlike curriculum changes, however, those decisions are mostly made at the local level, where funding for one career and technical teacher for every 95 students in grades seven through 12 -- six through 12 in low wealth school districts like Wayne -- is given.

"They make the choices at the local level," Mrs. Atkinson explained. "The guiding principle is the school district should offer courses based on the local labor market. And in some school districts the funding is sufficient to meet demand, but in others it may take creative partnerships like with the community colleges."

But in all the classes, perhaps the biggest challenge in the coming years will be integrating technology on an everyday basis.

This is especially true, she explained, for school districts like Wayne County that are on the brink of beginning a long-term building project.

"We need to provide flexibility in the design, so different types of technology can be accessed in every single classroom, not just one," Mrs. Atkinson said. "The days of just having one computer lab are just about over."

Not only, she continued, does every classroom need to be able to handle wired and wireless technology, but students should also have that technology in their hands.

Already, she noted, there are successful cases of schools using PDA-type devices to help their students manage their time and their workload. Other schools allow students to download podcasts of lessons directly to their iPods or laptops. And in the future, equipment such e-books may eventually replace many textbooks.

But perhaps most important, she said, is that in every classroom, blackboards should soon be replaced by computer-based interactive boards that allow teachers to monitor each student's work at once, as well as take full advantage of the Internet and other multi-media capabilities.

And while she realizes that such technologies come at a cost, she also believes they are worth it.

"We're not at that place yet in every classroom, but we're rapidly getting there, and it's the students who are demanding it," Mrs. Atkinson said. "This Generation M (millennial) is very different. They not only use technology, it's a way of life for them.

"This generation is going to expect more from their schools than just a teacher in front of them and desks in a classroom. They are going to expect to use technology."