In North Carolina, you can legally drop out of high school at the age of 16 – except in two school districts in Catawba County – Newton-Conover City Schools and Hickory Public Schools. Both were given permission to raise the dropout age to 18 three years ago as part of a pilot program. These districts have seen some success, but they don’t owe it all to raising the dropout age.
Newton-Conover schools had a wakeup call in 2011. Forty-five students dropped out. In a small system, that’s huge. That lowered the graduation rate to 83 percent. Hickory Public Schools was also having problems with a 76 percent graduation rate. Together, they asked the State Board of Education to raise the dropout age in their districts as part of a pilot program. Newton-Conover Assistant superintendent Aron Gabriel says they needed to try something different.
“Sometimes they need the feather, sometimes they need the hammer. Sometimes they need something hanging over their head because they just don’t see the value in it yet,” Gabriel says.
Four years later in 2015, Newton-Conover City Schools had the best graduation rate in the state, at 97 percent with only two dropouts. But Gabriel attributes the success to more than just raising the dropout age. And so does his counterpart at Hickory Public Schools, Angela Simmons.
“It’s not just that law that’s changing things, but it’s lots of different things to be creative – opening up more opportunities during the summer to earn credit. Some of these children are working 40 hour plus week jobs so we need to be creative and help them with all those other pieces as well,” Simmons says.
The two districts partnered to add alternative programs to accommodate students with jobs, students taking care of sick family members, and other extenuating circumstances. For example, they added online courses and traditional campus classes after regular school hours. The schools reallocated existing teachers and funds to run these programs to avoid additional costs. It’s these programs that have made the most difference, they say.
Hickory hasn’t seen as dramatic of a difference as Newton-Conover, but the graduation rates did go up about 1 percent, bringing the district average to 84 percent in 2016. Simmons says the threat of a trip to court helps keep some of the older kids in school.
“To actually bring them into the court room - it makes a big difference. They see that attendance is not something to play around with. It is and can be a criminal charge,” she says.
That's something of a bluff. In fact, both school systems call it ‘the bluff factor.’ It’s true, those under 18 in these districts can be charged with a misdemeanor. That rarely happens, but for more backup, these districts can now turn to the juvenile justice system says William Lassiter. He’s the deputy secretary of the system.
“We really try to keep kids out of confined facilities for committing truancy and really work with the family and the school to find out what’s causing this kid to be truant,” Lassiter says.
Its unlikely North Carolina will raise the dropout age state-wide anytime soon. Bills to do so haven’t gotten far. Critics argue its spending time and money on students who don’t want to be there and cause disruptions. However, the state board has given approval for two more districts to raise the dropout age – Rutherford and McDowell County Schools. It’s unclear when those new requirements will go into effect.