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W.Va. graduation rate matches U.S. average

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- About 78 percent of West Virginia high school students graduated on time in 2010, which is a slight increase from previous years, according to a study released by the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday.

The national average of high school students who graduated within four years of starting ninth grade is 78.2 percent -- the highest it's been since the mid-1970s, according to the report.

While the state graduation rate is on par with the national average, West Virginia's dropout rate has remained essentially the same while the national dropout rate has declined.

Between 2002 and 2010, the state's dropout rate hovered around 4 percent, with nearly 3,300 students dropping out in the most recent year recorded. The national dropout rate is about 3 percent.

But Shelly DeBerry, dropout prevention specialist for the West Virginia Department of Education, said a recent statewide effort to get communities involved is working to decrease those numbers.

"What West Virginia has done, as many states have, is partner up with others so that this is no longer a school issue but a community issue," she said. "There have certainly always been programs in place, but I don't think it has ever been so systemically coordinated. Before, it was hit or miss. The big difference in the last few years has been the additional partners to come on board and work with us."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin launched a dropout prevention campaign in 2011 that pairs education leaders with students and community members to target the reasons that contribute to students dropping out.

The West Virginia Supreme Court launched another initiative in 2011 to combat truancy by cracking down on parents of students who missed too much school. The program pairs up the circuit court system, local school boards and social agencies to keep students going to class.

Organizations such as The Education Alliance also have joined in, providing training to counties interested in conducting community forums to address the issue in their area.

In addition, "innovation zone" grants have helped numerous counties implement new strategies in schools to help at-risk students. Seventeen of West Virginia's 55 county school systems are currently using that funding, DeBerry said.

In its most recent effort, the state Department of Education teamed up with Johns Hopkins University to identify potential dropout indicators to establish "an early warning system." That system was made available for teachers and administrators to use this year.

"We all have a common goal, and that is to see students graduate from high school with career plans. Even from an economic standpoint, you can't have a successful state if students aren't graduating and moving into postsecondary opportunities," she said.

As a former school counselor specializing in at-risk students, DeBerry said that when talking about dropouts, schools have to consider "home contributors."

About 80 percent of people who drop out of school at some point in their lives will end up in jail, according to the educational nonprofit Mattie C. Stewart Foundation. Within West Virginia, 75 percent of all prison inmates are high school dropouts.

"If students do not live in home environments that promote or support completing your education, they have to have a positive connection to an adult at school and receive additional support academically," she said.

"A lot of times, we don't know the stresses at home, but it's those students -- who don't have someone there to tell them they can do it when they feel like it's too hard -- that give up."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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