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Dropout-age debate secondary to what matters most

February 14, 2012 -

By Maurice O. Green

---Superintendent, Guilford County Schools

---President Barack Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, urged every state to set the dropout age at 18. The administration recognizes that allowing students as young as 16 to make that life-compromising decision is a policy that makes little sense. In a globally competitive world, pursuing advanced training beyond high school is no longer optional as it was for previous generations.

North Carolina education leaders have sought to increase the dropout age from 16 before, and should try again. It would send another signal to students, parents and others about the critical importance of staying in school and graduating. While this effort is significant, no one should believe that simply changing the state's compulsory attendance age is sufficient.

Far more important than requiring students by law to stay in school is ensuring that school is a place they want to be, and helping young people understand that education is something they need. Schools must be engaging and challenging at the same time that they are supportive and personalized. In a word, they must be excellent.

Students must see the relevance in what they're being asked to learn, and they must have opportunities to make connections with the real world they enter upon graduation. In this ever-changing economy, we must prepare our students for jobs that don't even exist today, and we will do this only by developing new opportunities for students that reflect 21st century realities. The latest dropout data for North Carolina, released earlier this month by the State Board of Education, provide fresh evidence that these kinds of educational opportunities are helping keep students in school. The dropout rate for Guilford County Schools has continued to improve and remains below that of all other urban districts in the state.

But focusing on the dropout rate doesn't tell the whole story. While a student staying in school is certainly critical, those same numbers don't tell us whether that student graduated, or was well prepared to tackle college classes, advanced training, or an entry level job. Those numbers don't tell us whether a student demonstrates perseverance, knows how to use new information technologies well, or works collaboratively as a member of a high-functioning team in an environment characterized by constant change.

To prepare students for college and/or the career of their choice, Guilford County Schools (GCS) has focused on reshaping its traditional, comprehensive high schools and on opening different avenues to spur greater student success and engagement, including early/middle colleges, academies, and a new service-learning initiative. The district's eighth early/middle college opened this school year and focuses on health sciences, and the newest early/middle college, to open this fall, will emphasize science, engineering, technology and mathematics.

The state's graduation data provide evidence that these innovative approaches are making a real difference. In the 2010-11 school year, eight schools in GCS - all non-traditional high schools - achieved a 100 percent graduation rate, and nearly all non-traditional high schools had graduation rates above 95 percent. Overall, the district's graduation rate has risen every year since 2006 and remains above the state average.

Not only are our schools working hard to keep students in school by keeping them engaged and well supported, they're making sure that students understand there is no alternative to graduating and that learning is a life-long endeavor.

The kinds of results we are seeing in GCS are the sum of many parts - from hard-working educators to a supportive community united by a vision of educational excellence for all students. While GCS acknowledges the district's low dropout numbers, we celebrate the thousands of students each year who walk across the stage, receive their high school diploma and enter the next phase with the confidence and skills to succeed and make a difference.

Ultimately, it comes down to setting high expectations and making sure that students are empowered with the skills, knowledge and strength of character to reach them. In this equation, age doesn't matter nearly as much as the level of educational excellence our students receive.

Maurice O. Green is superintendent of North Carolina's Guilford County Schools, which serves more than 73,000 students in 122 schools, and is a national leader in the early/middle college movement.

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