01/12/10 — Board: Raise dropout age at schools

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Board: Raise dropout age at schools

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 12, 2010 1:46 PM

Raising the age at which a student can legally drop out of school could improve graduation rates, some members of the Wayne County Board of Education said Monday night.

The Board of Education was reacting to recent comments made by County Commission Chairman Jack Best, who said not enough was being done about North Carolina's "30 percent failure rate."

Best said he found the dropout rate unacceptable and said it should not be tolerated by the school board nor the community at large.

Monday night, school board member Dave Thomas agreed the issue presents a "crucial problem" and spoke again about a possible solution he had mentioned at previous board meetings.

"I really think we ought to raise the (dropout) age to 18," Thomas said. "If you're 16 years old, you can tell your parents or guardians, 'I'm not going any more.' If we say 18-year-olds can buy cigarettes, 21 to buy alcohol, we ought to have 18-year-olds, before you can drop out without your parents' or guardian's permission. And these 16-year-olds, they know that."

It's a sticking point that has long bothered him, Thomas, a longtime teacher, coach and school administrator, said after the meeting.

"I was in charge of attendance for about 10 years when I worked in the central office and kids that would miss a lot of school -- when they miss 10 days or more -- I would get involved," he said. "I would go to their homes and I would have mothers and grandmothers say, 'I want him to stay in school.' (The student) would say, 'I'm 16, I can drop out.' That's state law."

Other states have already considered the idea, he said. In South Carolina, a student has to be 17 to legally drop out of school. In Kentucky the minimum age is 18.

"The original law was back when we had the textile factories, furniture factories, farming was big," Thomas said. "So 30, 40 years ago you could drop out and get a job with a textile mill."

These days, young people can't get a good job as easily without the proper training, such as computer skills, Thomas said.

"You can't even join the service now without a high school diploma," he said.

Thomas said he believes the Legislature should raise the minimum age, even if it is done incrementally.

School board member Shirley Sims agreed with Thomas.

"Sixteen is too young to make that kind of decision," she said. "I agree with you on that."

School board member John Grantham said local school officials should push the state to consider the change.

"Since I have been on the board, a lot of things have come down from the state Board of Education," he said. "We generally just roll over and go along with what they say. I think in general, we need to buck the system."

Board member Thelma Smith said that while local boards of education are required to follow the law, they could still take action on their own.

She criticized the state system for defining a dropout.

"I'm understanding that the enrollment in the high school program at Wayne Community College is really up -- it's the third largest high school in the county -- and they have 180 enrolled this semester," she said. "At the end of the school year (superintendent Dr. Steve) Taylor and Mr. (Rick) Pridgen (school board chairman) are going to sign these diplomas for Wayne Community College and we have to count them as dropouts.

"That's one of the most ridiculous things that I have heard. Is it all over the country? No, just the state of North Carolina."

While the community college option is an option for students who drop out of public school, it's not necessarily helping the district out, board member Eddie Radford noted. At the same time, the county needs to look at all the positive things being done by the school system, such as the Teacher Academy introduced this past year at Southern Wayne High School to partially address the state's teaching shortage.

"Principals and students are doing the best they can," he said. "I'm proud of all the schools and principals."

Pridgen took issue with Best's suggestion that the school board did not care about the graduation rate, since it was still better than the statewide dropout rate.

"I don't think there's a person on this board that doesn't care about the dropout rate, or that the state average is acceptable for Wayne County," he said.

Pridgen cited a PBS broadcast he viewed over the weekend, in which Wayne County was mentioned as one of five counties that have been particularly aggressive in working to combat the problem.

"The relationship that we have with Wayne Community College would not happen if we were not proactive about that," Pridgen said. "For someone to say that we don't care, I just think, I don't know any other word -- it's ignorant."