COLUMBIA — Paying closer attention to students who have poor attendance and problems with discipline early-on, as well as building stronger relationships with students and their families, are key strategies for preventing dropouts, school district administrators said Thursday.
Columbia Public Schools' dropout rate was a topic of discussion at Thursday morning's school board meeting. Board members and administrators discussed seven key principles for preventing dropouts that were developed by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University.
Douglass High School Principal Eryca Neville said students who drop out usually are those who struggle with credit deficiencies, discipline referrals, poor attendance and grades. The best way to tackle the problem, she said, is to pay closer attention to incoming ninth-graders, which includes looking further into their academic performance in the eighth grade.
School board vice president James Whitt, however, said intervention really should begin in elementary school. West Boulevard Elementary School Principal Susan Emory agreed.
"Building relationships with the students and their families is critical," Emory said. She also emphasized how important it is each school approaches the problem the same way. She advocated consulting more with parents, making more home visits and paying more attention to students' attendance.
While the district's dropout rate has improved overall during the past several years, it did rise a bit in 2012 to 3.3 percent, up from 3.1 percent in 2011. The statewide dropout rate was 3.1 percent in both years.
Emory said that broadly speaking there are two types of students that do not graduate from high school:
- Students who are perfectly capable of succeeding in school but have parents who dropped out and therefore don't see graduating as very important.
- Students who have trouble learning. These students often fall behind and have multiple absences that compound the problem.
Whitt said transition reports that faculty create when students move from elementary to middle school are important to ensure strong transitions.
The district also is beginning to take a closer look at mental health issues. Most dropouts' families have low incomes, which increases the odds that they might have mental health challenges, Emory said.
When students with untreated mental health issues enter high school, their coping strategies change from when they were in elementary school, often resulting in drug use, Hickman High School Principal Tracey Conrad said.
Conrad examined the academic history of dropouts going all the way back to kindergarten and found a lot of the students started with a 95 percent attendance record.
"When you think about a kindergarten student, that's not very good attendance, because the parents can actually put them in cars and make them go," Conrad said.
Conrad added that there are few surprises when it comes to students who drop out.
"I went through every single dropout this year, and there was rarely a case where I was stunned," she said. "We definitely see trends.
When students get into the eighth or ninth grade, they start making more of their own decisions, and attendance tends to go down, Conrad said. Students who experience life events such as a death in the family, a pregnancy or the pressure to take on a part-time job also tend to drop out.
In other action, the school board reviewed the proposed budget for fiscal 2013-14, which begins July 1. The board is scheduled to approve the budget at its next meeting on Thursday morning.
Superintendent Chris Belcher presented the $181.4 million budget, which represents an 8.2 increase over the current fiscal year. His report to the board noted that the district is being forced to rely increasingly on local revenue because the state foundation formula is underfunded and because a proposed cigarette tax increase that would have funneled more money to education failed on the November ballot.
The budget shows revenue next fiscal year at $177 million, which means the district will have to dip into its reserves for about $4.4 million in fiscal 2013-14.
"The district acknowledges deficit spending is not a long-term sustainable model; however, the district strategically uses it for the 2013-14 budget and future budgets for a few years to continue improved operations and maintain class size at a reasonable level as the economy recovers," Belcher said in a report to the board.
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