Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rural 'dropout factories' offer challenges, rewards

A 2004 report first labeled schools that systematically produce dropouts as "dropout factories." Almost one-fifth of the 2,000 schools with that designation are in rural areas, but most of the focus on reducing dropout rates has been placed on urban schools, where the overall graduation rate for the class of 2006 was 58.7 percent compared to 73.1 percent in all rural schools, Mary Ann Zehr of Education Week reports. Working on the dropout crisis in rural areas can be more rewarding, says Thomas C. West, the University of Chicago researcher who wrote the dropout factory report: Rural schools have fewer students and "you can put more emphasis on what’s going on in their lives."

South Carolina leads the country with 50 rural schools on the dropout-factory list, and Georgia and North Carolina trail closely behind. Almost half of the 50 in South Carolina have fewer than 500 students, Zehr reports. "We have generational poverty, a lack of aspirations," Michael Lucas, the superintendent of the 10,400-student Oconee County School District, which has two schools on the list, told Zehr. To help combat the dropout problem, the district is working to ensure that children read by third grade, spent federal economic-stimulus aid this school year on hiring "adequate-yearly-progress coaches" who monitor struggling students and track them down if they miss school, and allows students who fail a class to make it up online as part of a credit-recovery program.

Tamassee-Salem Middle and High School, one of the dropout factories in Oconee County, has been recognized for its efforts to combat the problem. U.S. News & World Report gave it a bronze award for being one of South Carolina’s best high schools in 2007, and the next year "the school was one of 25 in the South to receive a Pacesetter award from the High Schools That Work initiative of the Southern Regional Education Board," Zehr writes. "Unfortunately, people take the dropout-factory label as a stigmatizing term rather than a helpful term," West told Zehr, noting that the point of the label is to get policymakers to focus on the problem. "Some schools need total reform; some may just need a lot of help. Some are doing well, but a couple of kids [in them] need extra help." (Read more)

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