We must all work harder to help students graduate

State School Superintendent June Atkinson is right about this: “Students in North Carolina need to hear one message from kindergarten all the way through school. And that message is: graduate! This needs to be the minimum expectation for every student.”

Sadly, that message just isn't getting through, though. Not to a lot of kids in this state. And not to enough adults.

Otherwise, the state's 2008 four-year graduation rate would be higher than the 69.9 percent noted recently. That percentage barely budged from 69.5 percent the year before. The rate is significantly lower for limited English speakers – 49.6 percent, Native Americans – 55.7 percent, students with disabilities – 56.2 percent, Hispanics – 56.2 percent, low-income students – 58.7 percent, and blacks – 62.3 percent.

Those are not the kind of numbers that will enable citizens to succeed and prosper, nor will it keep the state's economy healthy and thriving. State Board of Education chairman Howard Lee gave an apt assessment: “The world is going to be a very tough place for young people who enter the workforce without a high school diploma. In reality, a high school diploma is a minimum requirement. Students are going to need additional schooling and training in order to support themselves and their families.”

This economic downturn should be a wake-up call. Even some college graduates are finding the marketplace more competitive. Well-paying jobs in the professions of their choice are increasingly hard to come by. Students with a high school diploma or less often face unappealing leftovers – or worse, no job at all.

Yet graduation rates are down from a year earlier in many communities. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the rate went from 73.8 percent in 2007 to 66.6 percent this year. That's partly due to better accounting, but Superintendent Peter Gorman acknowledges he's concerned.

So should officials of Robeson County schools, where a 60.4 percent graduation rate in 2007 dropped to 52.4 percent in 2008. So should Vance County Schools, where a rate of 59.9 percent slid to 49.3 percent. So should Pitt County, where the graduation rate dropped to 54 percent from 62.4 percent the year before. Those counties have only about half the students who should be graduating getting a diploma.

There were some bright spots. Hoke County, a poor county with lots of academically struggling students, saw rates rise from 63.7 percent to 69 percent. Wake County held virtually steady with a 79.3 percent graduation rate in 2007 and a 78.8 percent rate in 2008. Guilford County barely budged from 79.7 percent graduating in 2007; the rate was 79.5 percent in 2008.

But even those school systems can and must do better. More is desperately needed from adults and youngsters to ensure students meet their academic potential and graduate from high school.

Students who don't graduate wear anvils on their ankles that will inevitably drag them down. They are more likely to live in poverty and to face a multitude of other problems. This year, make a pledge to help change that. Help a student graduate on time.