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Some South Carolina Schools Work to Shed Nation’s Highest Dropout Rate


Takara Perry knows if she had stayed on at St. Johns High School, she would simply have dropped out.

“I had thought about it. I was making Cs and Ds and just scraping by,” she said. “There were a lot of students in each class and a lot of distractions.”

Now the 17-year-old is a senior on the A-B honor roll at Septima Clark Corporate Academy, a school created to help children at risk of dropping out complete their degrees. She hopes to pursue a nursing degree at Clemson, something she never dreamed of two years ago.

For 17-year-old Tyrell Reed, lost in the crush of 1,900 students at West Ashley High School, the situation seemed even more dire.

“I was so bad off I felt if I didn’t move on in the right direction I would end up on the streets,” he said. “I was just running with a rough crowd.”

Now a junior in his second year at Clark, he hopes to pursue his dream of going to art school to learn photography.

The stories of Perry and Reed and the academy are bright spots in what seems an intractable problem in South Carolina low high school graduation rates.

There are about 1,700 regular or vocational high schools nationwide where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins University for The Associated Press.

Bob Balfanz, a researcher at the Baltimore university, calls such schools “dropout factories.”

They include almost 52 percent of the 185 high schools in South Carolina, the highest ratio in the nation, according to the study. Balfanz says while some of the students transferred before they graduated, most dropped out.

South Carolina’s dubious distinction can be explained in part because it is one of about 25 states requiring an exit exam, said Jim Foster, spokesman for the state Education Department.

Such states tend to have lower on-time graduation rates. South Carolina is also one of only six states requiring 24 credit hours for graduation while most require 12 to 14 hours, he said.

“But we’re not going to argue whether our graduation rate is 55 percent or 58 or 62,” he said. “It’s way too low and it’s been low for generations.”

The state estimates about 6,000 of the estimated 700,000 students in public schools leave school each year, never to complete their education. Officials believe part of the reason is cultural. In generations past, there were a lot of good-paying jobs even without a high school diploma.

“Whether that was in a steel mill in Pennsylvania or a textile factory in South Carolina or somewhere else, those jobs have gone overseas,” Foster said.

The South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank, recently released a study estimating one year’s class of dropouts cost the state $5 billion over a half century. Those costs come in less money paid in taxes and paying more for prisons and health insurance.

At Clark Academy, established almost 20 years ago, there are only 120 students and a student-teacher ratio of 15-1. That’s about half the average in other Charleston County Schools, said school director Kevin McClelland.

The students must apply and show they are willing to work in a new environment where they can get more individual attention and make up for lost time.

“Some of the students who apply are 16 or 17 and realized they need to do something different. These kids are bright, they just have gaps in their education,” he said.

In Greenville, schools and community organizations last summer launched “Graduate Greenville,” in which volunteers knocked on the doors of students who didn’t return to classes for the new school year.

A new community program in Charleston starts even earlier. Called “Born to Read,” it gives every mother who gives birth at the Medical University of South Carolina a book bag filled with books to read their child in an effort to provide a foundation for success in school.

The Education and Economic Development Act approved by state lawmakers two years ago also is designed to help keep students in school.

Eighth-graders statewide meet with parents and counselors to map out a curriculum for high school based on their interests and what they want to do in life. They then take related electives with the aim of keeping them engaged.

The problem of dropouts is daunting and it’s tough to raise money to deal with it, said Jane Riley, the Charleston executive director of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit, nationwide dropout prevention network.

The Charleston program has a budget of $1.2 million to provide help to schools such as Clark Academy. It gets $300,000 from the United Way and must raise the rest.

“It’s not a touchy-feely subject,” Riley said. “Some people have the attitude that it’s because of the parent or because the children made these choices. They don’t understand these children who are failing or have failed are our future work force.”

Back at Clark, Reed says the school has changed his life.

“I was a last-minute kind of person. I would have fun right now and figure it out (the future) later,” he said. “Here, the teachers stay on you. My friends are cool and everyone is on the same level and they’re all trying to graduate.”

On the Net:

Septima Clark Corporate Academy:

Communities in Schools:

South Carolina Department of Education:

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