When you think about it, 82 percent isn’t a bad number. It’s more than half, in fact, it’s more than three-quarters. But when you consider that Pocahontas County High School’s graduation rate is 82 percent, it becomes more alarming than impressive.
Pocahontas County Schools superintendent Terrence Beam is troubled by that number – mainly because it has been getting smaller and smaller each year.
“You have to ask yourself ‘why,’” Beam said. “You go back and you start looking – and if you look over the last four years – the trend has been for our graduation rate to consistently drop. That’s going in the wrong direction.”
Pocahontas County is in RESA IV with Webster, Greenbrier, Braxton, Nicholas and Fayette counties. Of those six counties, Pocahontas has the lowest graduation rate and the highest dropout rate.
Statewide, Pocahontas County is ranked 49 or 48 of the 55 counties. By 2020, Beam said State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Martirano wants all counties to have a 90 percent graduation rate.
With all these numbers in mind, Beam said it is time to make some changes and find ways to keep students in school.
“When you get those kind of figures, you have to look at yourself and say ‘what are we doing wrong?’” he said. “I try to talk to as many students that are dropping out as possible, and try to convince them not to do it. A lot of them make the comment that the block schedule does not allow them to make up classes. They can’t get their class when they fail it. They can’t make it up and they can’t get their grade up.”
Pocahontas County High School is working on a new schedule, as well as credit recovery classes to help students make up for bad grades, but that is only part of the struggle.
Students who drop out have been planning to drop out for awhile, Beam said, and this causes poor attendance rates. In order to keep students in school on a regular basis and to keep them from leaning toward dropping out, the board of education hired a truancy diversion specialist with a state-funded grant.
“It’s a go-between – between the parents and [truancy officer Ron Hall], and the court system,” Beam said. “It’s to try to prevent the kids from getting in the court system. It’s another step. Lori Doolittle is actually going out and knocking on doors, and sitting down with the parents and kids in their homes and dealing with them.”
The school system also has interventionists and graduation coaches in place to help students, along with the truancy diversion specialist.
With a new solution in place for attendance, Beam said looking at the high school schedule is the next step, but there is more to the issue than just the high school. Many dropouts make the decision when they are in elementary and middle school.
“I’m not anti block scheduling,” he said. “I want to make that clear. I am just not seeing the progress we need in our high school. It is not a high school problem. The dropout rate, the graduation rate is not solely the problem of the high school. Those habits and that direction have already been established by those kids when they’re maybe in grade school, but certainly middle school before they go to the high school. They’ve already given up and lost.
“The high school gets these kids that have already given up on their education,” Beam continued. “So we can’t blame the high school and I’m not blaming the high school. What I am saying is we need to look at every avenue possible and say ‘is there something we can offer that is better for our kids.”
Beam said while the schedule change at the high school isn’t going to fix the problems which begin in the elementary and middle schools, he thinks it may give the students a better chance to take the classes they want along with the classes they need.
“If you have a student in a four block schedule and you change that to where he has six classes a day instead of four, then obviously he’s going to have more choices,” Beam said. “They are very limited. Even our more accelerated students, it’s hurting them. I’ve talked to teachers at the high school, people who are working up there now and they have told me that they would like to move away from block scheduling. I’ve talked to others and they say, ‘no, the block schedule is great. We don’t want to move away from it.’”
While he has to hear the opinions of all the teachers, Beam said he is focused 100 percent on making the students happy. He said with a schedule change, students would have more chances to take electives and Career and Technical [CTE] classes.
“There’s no right or wrong answer to this,” he said. “All I’m saying is that we need to fix some of these problems we have with these kids getting in the courses they need, more electives possibly and more CTE courses. If you’re going to have more, more, more, you’ve got to have more class periods for them to go into these courses.”
Beam and the board staff are working hard to find ways to get students to stay in school and earn a degree.
“We’re just trying to find some answers,” he said. “I’m willing to work with the high school, the middle school – it doesn’t matter to me who it is – to try to come up with some solutions and at least some action steps on how we can address that problem. I’m open to their suggestions. I’m certainly not dictating what to do but we have to be willing to at least consider other options.”
For several years, PCHS has offered the GED Option program which helps students earn an equivalency degree and keeps them from dropping out completely. The program works, but some students opt to quit all together instead of taking advantage of that.
“We have some that go that avenue to avoid dropping out, but most of the time, it’s not the case,” Beam said. “They’ve already pretty much made up their mind they’re going to drop out. I had a young lady in here one day and I said, ‘if I would write you a check for a million dollars would you stay and graduate?’ and she said, ‘yeah.’ I said, ‘that’s what you’re giving up when you drop out because over the course of your lifetime, if you work and make a decent wage, you’re going to make a lot of money.’ You may not make a million, but my point to her was that you are giving up a lot by quitting.”
Beam knows first-hand what it’s like to try to convince a student to remain in school.
“My first grandson, he dropped out of high school when he was a senior,” Beam said. “He got frustrated. He dropped out. I talked to him again the other day and he can’t find a job doing anything. Now he’s going back to get his GED and he’s about to finish.
“I don’t think kids realize what they’re doing at that point,” he continued. “Parents need to be parents and need to encourage their child, and in a lot of cases, say, you’re going to school and finish school because I know what’s better for you.’ I know parents get frustrated with the school system and get frustrated with their kids, but they’re not doing their kids any favors by letting them drop out. I had that same conversation with my own daughter, so I’m speaking from experience. I’ve been through it, and I’ve seen the results of it.”
When it comes down to it, Beam is determined to have every student in Pocahontas County earn a degree, because they deserve it.
“Our kids are giving up their future when they do that,” he said. “If they are going to have a good quality of life, they’ve got to have a good job and if they’re going to have a good job, they have to graduate from high school. It’s our responsibility to provide every avenue to them to graduate.”
Beam, the board of education, board employees and PCHS faculty plan to have a work session to discuss options for a new schedule at the high school and other ideas as to how to improve the graduation rate.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org