Clinton schools give dropouts a shortcut to graduation

Posted June 13, 2015

Louie Boykin spends his days visiting basketball courts, gyms and homes trying to convince students to come back and complete high school. (Photo by  Reema Khrais)

— In Clinton, N.C., school leaders hired Louie Boykin to serve as the district’s dropout prevention coach.

His job? Convince students to stay in school and graduate.

“We’re going into the city of Clinton to look for some students who have dropped out,” Boykin says as he walks out of the school one afternoon.

On this day, like many others, he gets into his car in search of teenagers who’d rather be anywhere but class.

“This is small town, USA. Population:10,000 people,” he says.

Clinton is in Sampson County, about an hour away from both Wilmington and Raleigh. Some of the biggest local industries involve slaughtering hogs and building escalators. Farming is a big deal here, and so are high school sports.

Within three minutes of driving around, Boykin waves hello to his old sixth-grade teacher and points to his cousin’s car wash. Then, he turns to a different part of town.

“This was the dividing line, this street right here, for segregation, white and black. This is where I’m from. And it’s still pretty much predominantly African-American down here,” he explains.

Boykin’s upper body is crouched over the wheel. He’s sporting school colors with a black and gold vest, and squints through his glasses.

On many days, Boykin spends his time knocking on doors, looking for dropouts to try and convince them to come back to school.

‘The tragedy of dropping out’

But as he drives down one street, there’s no need to knock. He spots a young man sitting on his wooden porch.

“Sterling what’s happening. What’s good with you?” he shouts from his car.

Sterling Banks is 19. He makes his way to Boykin’s car, lifting the black headphones from his ears so they rest on his shoulders.

“What are you doing nowadays?” Boykin asks.

“Just chillin’, chillin’,” he responds.

Banks was just released from jail, charged with drug-related offenses.

“Just looking for a job and chillin’,” he says.

“It’s hard to look for a job without a high school diploma, ain’t it?” Boykin retorts.

Banks dropped out from high school when he was 16.

“I had a little problem in school, and I was kind of bad, it wasn’t working on me for the time,” Banks says. “And I had a lot going on. I was on juvenile probation at the time.”

He used to work at a poultry plant and is now looking for a job at Burger King. Boykin tells Banks to say hi to his older brother, who did graduate.

“Yeah, nothing to do. That’s the tragedy of dropping out,” Boykin says as he drives away.

Boykin has helped at least 40 students in the last few years either stay in school or come back.

As it is in many other parts of the state, the graduation rate in Sampson County is slowly climbing. Boykin says some students end up dropping out because of family problems, and they want to make money. About a third of Clinton residents live below the poverty line.

Other students have just been itching to leave since middle school.

Later in the afternoon, Boykin comes across 18-year-old James Ashe. He happens to be hanging out with Banks. Dropouts hang out with dropouts, Boykin explains.

“It’s an everyday thing, just chilling, nothing to do really,” says Ashe, holding a Wendy’s cup.

But unlike his friend, Ashe is tired. He recently called Boykin asking if he could come back to school.

“There’s nothing out here, you just be bored, just walking the streets, doing nothing, everybody getting in trouble. I just need something positive in my life and to find a better job, I guess,” Ashe says.

Ashe wants to go into construction. He could’ve graduated this month had he not quit school last year. Boykin tells him he looks different. He wears glasses and looks more focused.

“You know I’ll be there for you, as long as you’re in the right. So stay focused. When school starts back in August, you’re coming back to graduate,” Boykin says.

At-risk students take fewer credits

And to help make that happen, Boykin has a plan. He’ll allow him to graduate with fewer credits than most of his peers.

Like some alternative schools and many other school districts, Clinton City Schools run a program that lets a handful of struggling students focus on completing only what’s required by the state. So instead of taking the local standard 28 credits, they can finish with just 22.

State officials from the Department of Public Instruction say they don't collect data on just how prevalent these policies are, but that, anecdotally, it's common.

Leaders of the Clinton City Schools say letting struggling students focus only on the bare minimum state requirements increases the chances they’ll graduate and, as a result, earn a decent wage once they hit the work force. The few local requirements they often pass on are elective courses.

“If they knew they had to come back and take the required 28 courses, they wouldn’t come back because that would set them at least two years behind, so they wouldn’t come back, they would give up,” explains Boykin, who helps roughly 15 students each year take this alternate route.

Qualifications for these programs are sometimes broad – students need to show that something in their lives, whether it’s social or academic, is preventing them from performing well. Elizabeth Carter, 21, qualified because she dropped out and previously failed some courses.

She quit school two years ago after rushing into a marriage. Her new trailer home was too far from the bus route, so counselors began driving her back and forth to school.

“And I just decided I didn’t want to be a burden on nobody, so I just quit,” she says.

Her relationship went sour and she spent the next year-and-a-half lounging around, not doing much. Eventually, she visited her old school to help enroll her younger sister. There, she ran into Boykin who told her she could graduate in a semester if she came back.

“And I was like, I’m kind of old, wouldn’t these people be like ‘dang, you know, she’s old, and she’s here.’ Then I talked with my mom about it and she was like, 'you should go because it’s free,'” she says.

So last semester, she took a Math and English class in the morning and worked at KFC in the afternoon. And she passed. Because of the lighter course load, she can’t attend a four-year state university. But she’ll go to a community college in the fall.

“I think I did good. I’m proud of myself,” she says with a smile.

After community college, she wants to attend a four-year university to fulfill a dream she’s held onto since she was 11: to study Cuban cuisine and cook for a living.

This report first appeared on WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio as part of their education coverage. Reema Khrais is the 2014 Fletcher Fellow focused on Education Policy Reporting. The Fletcher Fellowship is a partnership between WUNC and UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication funded in part by the Fletcher Foundation.


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  • Cindy Traver Jun 15, 2015
    user avatar

    Nice to see the other comments are all about letting dropouts continue to be a burden on society. Seriously people, these students need help and your going to whine and complain about them not taking a couple of elective courses? This is not going to cause other students to lower their values. Students have been graduating like this for years and it has not caused anyone wanting to go straight to a 4 year school to take less credits and work instead. How about commending dropouts for getting up and going back to school against all odds so that they can better their lives and not be a drain on society.

  • Bernadette Dan Unger Jun 14, 2015
    user avatar

    If they don't have the requirement to take the same credit structure as the other students, what is the incentive for the rest of the kids to do "all" of the work? Education is an internal desire to progress ones future, and cutting corners for those who would sell drugs, steal, and what ever else they "choose" to do is simply part of the problem. You're teaching them that shortcuts are a part of their life. Then what happens next; they are working and instead of putting all of the money in the till, they can skim off a percentage for themselves because it is a shortcut to making more money? Every time you lower the standards, people will stoop to meet them. You want to do a half way program, then instead of a diploma, they get a certificate of attendance or something equivalent to their diminished achievements. Stop shortcutting the next generations.

  • Jeff Johnson Jun 13, 2015
    user avatar

    Waiting for the day the AMA lets some people take an abreviated path to becoming a Doctor. This makes no sense.

  • Doug Smallen Jun 13, 2015
    user avatar

    Exactly why a High School Dipolma has no credibility any more!