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Rural Struggle: Get Students to Graduate, Go To College

One of the big problems discussed at the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit last week was the difficulty rural schools face in getting students to go to college. Speaker after speaker agreed that one of the major hurdles is family support. They said that, in many cases, students aren't encouraged by their families to seek post-secondary education.

Perhaps because it's already been well-documented, the conference didn't delve as much into an equally critical issue—getting rural students to graduate from high school. NPR is doing a series called, "School's Out: America's Dropout Crisis," and a story broadcast on Tuesday chronicled the plight of a rural South Carolina teenager who doesn't think he needs a high school diploma to succeed.

His attitude isn't unique. The NPR story describes how many rural students in Oconee County, S.C., haven't had an interest in school but dropping out hasn't kept them from finding work. Jobs in textile mills and farming once were passed down, and a diploma wasn't necessary.

"The same argument is still pervasive in our school community," said Seneca Middle School Principal Al LeRoy, in the story. "Our community struggles with that a good bit."

The circumstances in students' lives outside of school don't always make it easy for them to stay in school, either, and the NPR story details the dirty home conditions and lack of support facing the featured student.

NPR apparently picked South Carolina for the story because it has one of the worst graduation rates in the country. Back in 2007, one Johns Hopkins University researcher coined the term "dropout factory" to reference schools where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. One in 10 high schools in America can be considered "dropout factories" under that definition, and many of those schools are in rural communities.

It's hard to believe the state where I live, South Carolina, has more dropout factories than anywhere else, with 50. Then again, when you consider the state's rural landscape in combination with its high percentage of students living in poverty—58 percent of all South Carolina schools have at least 70 percent of their students living in poverty—it makes a little more sense.

The NPR story was worth a read, and I hope to look further at the barriers facing rural students in going to college in the future. At the conference, I heard about a number of places where students were overcoming those obstacles, but if you know of others, I welcome your suggestions.

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