How to Cover the Dropout Issue

January 23rd, 2009; 8:33 am by Ryan Thornburg

Perhaps my biggest fear about the subject for this semester’s Public Affairs for New Media class is the danger of mission creep. We’re going to be covering the state’s dropout rate, which anyone who has spent any time with the issue will tell you is not a problem isolated to single moment in a child’s life.

Reading up on the issue, it seemed that people tackled the issue in one of two ways — either as a trailing indicator with roots in pre-kindergarten or as a leading indicator of difficulties that a person will have throughout his or her life staying out of jail, holding down a job, and maintaining a family.

So we run a real danger of trying to wrap our arms around a topic that seems to be correlated to lifelong problems that begin at birth persist throughout life.

On Monday, we’re hosting our newspaper partners in Chapel Hill. We’ll find out then how they see the issue playing out in their communities. But as I educate myself on the topic and have been discussing it this week with students, here are some of the questions I have.

My question to you: What would you like to know about North Carolina’s diploma dilemma? How would you like to see us cover the issue. I welcome your comments.

  • There are 1.2 million North Carolinians who don’t have a high school diploma. Who are they? Where are they? What do their lives look like?
  • 23,550 North Carolinian kids dropped out of school last year. Who are they? Where are they? Why did they drop out? Where will they end up?
  • The districts with the highest dropout rate tend to be concetrated in the rural mountains or in the rural east. What effect does a rising dropout rate have on most North Carolians – the 90 percent who do have a diploma? Is this a problem of public policy or individual achievement and opportunity? Is there a correlation between
    - teacher salaries and dropout rates in districts?
    - tax rates?
    - per student spending?
    - income level of parents?
    - education attainment of parents?
  • Starting in 2003, there was a huge jump in the number of dropouts that were attributed to students seeking further education at community colleges. Why the sudden increase? Was there a policy decision that prompted it? Are these students ultimately more successful in life than students who drop out because of work, family, drug or discipline reasons?
  • About 5 percent of the state’s high school students dropout every year. For Native American’s it’s 7.7 percent. For Hispanics, it’s 7.6 percent. For blacks, it’s 6.16 percent and rising. How do social and cultural issues surrounding race and ethnicity effect the causes and potential solutions?
  • The state legislature is giving away $7 million to 60 efforts across the state aimed at reducing the dropout rate. The state Department of Public Instruction has launched a PR campaign to raise awareness of the issue. What’s working? What’s not? How do you measure? Where is the best return on these investment?
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