Live 5 Investigates: School Dropout Numbers

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - South Carolina's graduation rate is at an all-time high of 84.6%.

But there are still thousands of students who slip between the cracks every year.

Numbers from the S.C. Department of Education show nearly 22,000 students d ropped out of school over the last four years, more than five thousand students per year.

"It's a barrier for individuals to gain income and sustain their families," said Jermaine Husser with Palmetto Goodwill.

"That's a huge gap of income in an individual's household where they can make better decisions where their child is going to school, better eating habits in their household," Husser said.

"It's a formula for disaster," said Mark Epstein, a retired counselor who worked for CCSD for 27 years.

The state d ropout rate was 2.5% in 2012, 2.6 % in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and 2.3% in 2016.

When looking at our local district percentages of d ropouts, the numbers have been up and down in recent years.

Berkeley, Dorchester 2, Dorchester 4, Georgetown and Colleton County overall d ropout rates are lower than they were five years ago.

Williamsburg County is higher than it was five years ago, with an average enrollment of about 1,200 students.

Charleston County's d ropout rate improved in 2012 and 2013 but were higher in the three most recent years.

"It's incredibly significant. One or two percentage points are young people out there walking the streets! That's significant! That's a burden on our society," Epstein said. "When I would meet with a student who was ready to d rop out of school, the biggest concern I had was how old they were. If they had already turned 17, we were against the clock."

In South Carolina a student can d rop out of school without parent consent once they turn 17.

Epstein has been working with Representative Wendell Gilliard to propose a law increasing the dropout age to 18. They believe that one year would
make a big difference.

Ella Hall works for the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek and says as an adult, it bothered her that she d ropped out of high school.

"Just being a teen. Being a single mom at one point. I didn't value it as much then as I did now," Hall said of her high school diploma.

But having two sons of her own changed things.

"I keep instilling in them education is the key to success," she said.

Hall became determined to earn her diploma before her oldest son did.

"I got my GED in December 2012," Hall said."He graduated in May 2013. So I think I did great! When he saw me walk across the stage to get my degree, he was so happy. And then he went above and beyond to get his."

Epstein says motivation doesn't always come easy to teenagers.

"The biggest reason for our d ropouts from my perspective has been the maturity and motivation," Epstein said."Anyone and everyone is at risk for that at some point in their educational career."

Toshawnka Mahone with Charleston County School District has witnessed one factor in particular that can make it or break it for at-risk students.

"We've noticed a lot of our students, they don't have that one person that's really pushing them or motivating them to stay and complete it," Mahone said."That person they want to make proud."

Mahone is the Program Director for Septima P. Clark Academy in North Charleston, a non-traditional option for students who are getting behind.  

Their application now includes a section for students to describe someone the student looks up to; Mahone says she and her staff can use that to motivate students when they get discouraged.

"Our program is designed to be the gap between a traditional high school setting and a more restrictive setting. We serve students who tend to be over age and under credited," Mahone said.

Clark Academy's class sizes are capped at 15.

There are not labels of "freshman, sophomore, junior, senior."

"We treat them similar to in a college, we look at your credits. What do you need to get your high school diploma?" Mahone said. "We serve a lot of young ladies who are mothers. We have a lot of males who for whatever reason are helping their families take care of their siblings. They have very adult responsibilities but still have this child or student requirement to complete."

Mahone worries when d ropout percentages creep up.

She's pushing harder to recruit kids to Clark, send letters to parents, and she even started targeting eighth graders falling behind.

"If we catch them earlier, there's a greater chance they'll be successful," Mahone said.

Jermaine with Goodwill tells us they are working to launch what's called an Excel Center in North Charleston where adults can come earn their high school diploma.

Similar centers have been hugely successful in other states such as Indiana where they offer classes, free child care, and career guidance.

Husser believes South Carolina adults should have the option of earning a high school diploma instead of a GED if they choose.

"Don't give up," Hall said."Don't ever give up. There's resources out there. You're gonna get an education, you're gonna get a good job. And you're gonna take care of your mom! Period, bottom line,"

RESOURCES:

Application to Septima P. Clark Academy

Berkeley County Schools' Star Academy

Georgetown County Schools' information about students with disabilities and dropouts

Relocating military families:

https://www.ccsdschools.com/families/students/choice/resources_for_military_families

National d ropout Prevention Center:

http://dropoutprevention.org/

Conferences and Events:

http://dropoutprevention.org/conferences/

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