ASHEVILLE - North Carolina's dropout rate declined slightly in 2004-05, while the rate at Asheville High School increased for the first time in seven years, according to a report issued Wednesday.
Nearly one out of every 20 high school students in the state dropped out, jeopardizing their opportunities for future success. The report released by the state Board of Education said the statewide rate in grades nine through 12 was 4.74 percent, down from 4.86 percent the year before.
State board Chairman Howard Lee used the occasion to renew his call for changes in North Carolina's compulsory attendance law, which requires school attendance from age 7 up to 16.
"We do students a disservice to send the message that it is acceptable to drop out of school when they are 16 years old," he said. "A high school diploma is a minimum requirement for future success, and we will continue to press for changing the compulsory school attendance age."
Among school districts in Western North Carolina, 14 had a rate higher than the state average, while five had a lower rate.
Henderson County Schools posted a rate of 3.46 percent, down from 5.5 percent in 2003-04.
"We're not happy that 137 kids dropped out, but we're happy that we're down from 212 the year before," Superintendent Steve Page said. "We're cautiously optimistic."
Page said administrators dealt personally with students in danger of dropping out and tried to persuade those who left school to come back.
"A child doesn't walk away from school without someone trying to intervene," he said. "The challenge we have now is to sustain this."
Asheville High School had a 5.62 percent dropout rate, marking the first increase in seven years. Robert Logan, superintendent of Asheville City Schools, said he is disappointed in the results but believes there's hope for improvement.
"Seventy-six students opted out of school last year in an era when a good education is more important than ever," Logan said. "I also believe that this report validates what we are attempting to do at Asheville High School through the work of the Innovation Task Force and our goal of making the high school experience more rigorous and relevant for all students."
Administrators are counting on Asheville High's new "school within a school," called the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences. The program is geared for students interested in careers in health care, whether they want a job right after graduation or a college degree.
The effort is part of the N.C. New Schools Project, a high school reform effort funded with millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Asheville district is one of eight in the state taking part in the project.
Asheville High Principal Judd Porter said the program involves teachers working with smaller groups of students using methods that make learning relevant to the world of work.
"They are gearing their instructional delivery in ways that make it obvious to the kids why they need to know what they are being taught," he said.
Nina Reynolds, a freshman in the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences, said her grades this year have improved. She made the A-B honor roll twice.
"I've loved it so far," she said. "I'm actually understanding what I'm doing in my classes and I feel like I'm learning a lot more."
Buncombe County Schools saw a slight decline to 5.18 percent from 5.28 percent in 2003-04.
"Any reduction in our dropout rate, whether it's large or small, is a success," said Sonia Logan, the school district's director of student services.
In an attack on the dropout problem, the Buncombe district this fall opened Buncombe County Early College on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, which allows students to earn a high school diploma along with a two-year college degree in five years. The district also established Early Response Teams to help at-risk students stay in school.
Getting help for students who are struggling in the early grades is the best way to keep them from dropping out of school later, said Deborah Mowrey, executive director of the Asheville-Buncombe Education Coalition.
Now in its fifth year, the coalition matches tutors and mentors with students who need extra help. The organization is serving 451 children and their families in Asheville and Buncombe County this year.
"The key to lowering the dropout rate is early identification of issues related to achievement, then matching those students immediately with tutors on a one-on-one basis," Mowrey said. "We definitely see great hope for decline in the dropout rate.
"The kids who are dropping out right now are the kids we didn't reach that we should have reached in the third and fourth grades."