Pitt County Schools is taking some of the credit for declining high school dropout rates.
"Over the past several years, our school system has made it a point of emphasis to work on improving our graduation rate and reducing our dropout rate," said Travis Lewis, the district's community and student services director.
Ten years ago, the district had one of the highest high school dropout rates in the state. That number has steadily declined since then. Last year, the number of students who left high school before graduating was 67 percent lower than it was in the 2007-2008 school year, data from the state department of public instruction shows.
A report from the state's education agency cites low attendance as the main reason why high school students drop out. To help address this issue, the district has worked to reduce the number of students it suspends, Lewis said.
"When we suspend students out of school for offenses that ultimately aren’t a significant disruption to other students, aren’t a danger to the campus community, then we’re just putting those students further behind, essentially giving them a day off of school," Lewis said.
Though the district had one of the state's highest suspension rates in the state last school year, that number has declined by 13 percent for short-term suspensions and 76 percent for long-term suspensions over the last three years.
To help students who are falling behind graduate on time, the district provides non-traditional learning programs, such as Pitt Academy and online courses, that give students greater flexibility. For instance, Lewis describes a student who considered dropping out before enrolling in Pitt Academy.
“He’s 19 years old. He has a son. He was thinking school just wasn’t for him," Lewis said. "Some of the demands of his personal life didn’t fit with kind of a traditional high school setting. So, what our superintendent and our board have really encouraged over the last several years is creating different opportunities for different kinds of learners.”
In 2015, the state stopped factoring the number of high school students who enroll in community college programs into dropout totals. This has partly contributed to the recent three-year decline in the district's dropout rate, Lewis said. But he thinks efforts from the district and the community have played a greater role in improving graduation rates, he said.
"When we see that our students are doing better, that's attributable to teachers, to counselors, to administrators, to parents, to grandparents, to neighbors, to local businesses, to our faith-based community."