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District adds support to keep students on track to graduate

One line goes up and the other goes down, but taken together they represent a single trend for Lenoir County Public Schools, according to a veteran LCPS educator in a new role this year dedicated to making sure that trend continues.

Over the past five years, LCPS has seen its dropout rate fall and its graduation rate climb.

“It’s like one ball striking another. The momentum of one moves the other,” said Andre Whitfield, who served as an assistant principal and principal with LCPS before stepping into the newly created position of high school graduation success officer. “When you keep the kids in school, of course, that’s going to help your graduation rate. There is a connection there.”

An African American male in a face mask looks across desk at female student whose back is to cameraThe district’s dropout rate for the 2019-2020 school year – the most recent year reported – was 1.56, an improvement of 36 percent over the previous year. The four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2021 was 87.2 percent, up two points from a year earlier.

Both numbers represented new bests for the district and beat the state averages for dropout rates and four-year graduation rates.

Such success might look to make Whitfield’s job easier; but in keeping even more students on track to graduate, he and the school administrators and school counselors with whom he works face some significant headwinds unique to these times.

Some students disconnected when coronavirus disrupted school schedules. Others feel anxious about returning to school after months at home. Still others found full-time employment in an economy starved for workers.

 “A lot of times, the student is working,” Whitfield said of the potential dropouts he’s counseling. “If you’re making $15 an hour working and you need five credits to graduate, it’s really hard to tell them to stop making this money and go to school. They’re pretty much being an adult and we’re asking them to revert back to the student frame of mind. It’s really a tough pill to swallow when your household depends on you working 40 hours a week.”

Whitfield’s approach to helping those students, as well as all others referred to him by high school administrators and counselors, depends on their circumstances. “It’s case by case,” he said, “seeing how we can fit school into their schedule. The schools are really good about meeting the needs of students and putting in those interventions for students.”

In the 2017-2018 school year, 80 LCPS high school students were counted as dropouts. In 2018-2019, that number was 61. In 2019-2020, the last year reported, the number fell to 39.

Students with excessive absences or with a deficit of academic credits needed to graduate on time are monitored and counseled as a matter of routine. If students indicate a desire to leave school, they and their parents face a number of required interviews with counselors and principal – and ultimately with Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Harvey II – to ensure the students understand their options and the consequences of their decision. This year, Whitfield is added as “another layer of the cake,” as he put it.

“What we have in place is working,” he said. “I’m just an additional piece, an additional layer of support. I work in collaboration with each school. I have the time that I can do progress checks with students, see how they’re doing and take that load off the counselors and school administrators.”

Whitfield – a veteran of both the Army and Navy who earned advanced degrees in college – can help broaden students’ horizon, according to Harvey.

“He has the luxury of spending quality time with those students and their families and developing plans for them beyond high school,” he said. “That’s what they want – a plan beyond high school. Our students right now can’t see beyond this year. What Andre does with his experience, from being in the military, from going to college, he can show those students different pathways that are available to them that they didn’t even know existed.”

The Class of 2022 had had a bumpy trip through high school, with instructional time lost to multiple hurricanes and floods and the pandemic’s cycles of disruption. The creation of Whitfield’s new job – like the installation of another veteran principal, Felicia Solomon, in the new role of student services and equity officer – is an acknowledgment by LCPS that, from a social and emotional standpoint, these students merit extra help.

“When you think about hurricanes and the trauma from those and the trauma from the pandemic and just being socially disconnected from folks for a year or so, it’s tough. It takes its toll on people,” Whitfield said. “We have to meet those needs.”

Whitfield’s goal is to connect with every student in the 2022 cohort, all the seniors and particularly those students classified as 11-plus, students who entered high school with the cohort but who still need to complete a required course or earn enough credits to be classified as 12th graders and to graduate next spring.

“A lot of times, they are so close to graduating,” Whitfield said. “It may just be a matter of taking out a calendar and breaking it down for the student. It’s not as much time as they think it is.”