Next month, state education officials will consider changing the definition of high school dropout.

Under current policy, students dropping out of high school for any reason are considered dropouts unless they return to a traditional high school program. That status is reflected on their academic record and in the dropout rate reported for the public school system they left.

Officials with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction would like to change that for students who complete an alternate diploma program within the time they would have been expected to graduate. If students leave high school but enroll in an adult high school diploma program and complete that program by the time they would have graduated high school, they are no longer considered a dropout. They would not count against the school system’s dropout rate and would not have “dropout” on their academic record.

The state board is set to vote on the policy change next month.

“It’s a joint program between the local school district and the local community college,” said Rebecca Garland, deputy state superintendent. “There’s more partnering going on now between the institutions.

“We’re more interested in finding a program that works for students and students being successful than anything else.”

The qualifying adult high school programs are specific. There must be an agreement between the local public school system and the community college where the program is offered. Graduation requirements must include, at a minimum, the state’s requirements for earning a high school diploma. And upon completion of the program, the superintendent of the local public school system must verify the student’s completion and issue the diploma.

The change would not affect students who drop out and pursue other academic programs, such as college coursework or a GED.

In 2013, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools signed an agreement with Forsyth Tech to create an adult high school program. That program is offered online, allowing students to complete coursework on their own schedule.

Beverly Emory, the superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said she supports the change. It’s not about making the district’s dropout rate look better, she said. Emory said she hopes the change will mean that more students find the academic path that best suits their needs.

“I support anything that encourages a student to do something when (they) drop out,” Emory said. “It’s the moral and ethical imperative of helping that student get a high school diploma whether we get credit or not for it.”

Emory said it may encourage guidance counselors to give students another option when traditional high school is not the best path.

“Our folks are likely spending all of their energy and effort to keep those kids (in school),” Emory said. “That might not be a viable option for some.”

The adult high school diploma program offers an alternative to students for whom the traditional high school schedule may not work, Garland said.

“The adult high school diploma program is primarily for those students … (for whom) life experiences or something interferes with their ability to go to school,” she said. “A girl that has the unexpected birth of a child and can’t be in school during the day but at night someone can look after the child. That’s one example. Another is the student who drops out to work and works during the day but can go to school at night.

“There are all kinds of circumstances now that students run into and the schedule of the adult high school works better for them,” Garland said.

That’s not to say, though, that school should see such programs as a way to move students out of the public school system. The change is not to encourage more students to leave public school, but instead to give credit to the public school system for students who graduate through alternate means.

“We do not want this to be a wholesale movement of children to community college programs,” Garland said. “That’s not their mission. Theirs is to educate adults. Ours is to educate children.”

About 600 eligible students graduated from adult high school diploma programs around the state in the 2013-14 academic year, compared to about 80,000 who graduated from the traditional public school systems.

aherron@wsjournal.com (336) 727-4068

@ArikaHerron

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