Could raising the dropout age keep kids in school, curb crime among teens in Durham?

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Quan Yarborough walks down Bryant Street in East Durham where he lived while attending Hillside High School about 15 years ago.

“Over here is the bus stop where I would catch the bus when I was 15,” Yarborough said, pointing to the area where he used to stand.

Yarborough, now 31, recalls how he grew up in a single-parent household in the projects with his mom and two younger siblings.

To help his mom pay the bills, he said he started working at 15.

“When you don’t have the necessary essentials at home, you don’t really pay attention to curriculum in school when you’re thinking about making a way for yourself,” Yarborough said.

Focused on supporting his family, he never finished high school.

When Yarborough went out in the real world, he said it was almost impossible to find a decent job.

“It’s because you don’t have any certification, you don’t have any experience, and you don’t have an education, which will lead you into the back of the pack,” he said.

Yarborough then suffered from emotional distress and turned to street life and drugs.

“It’s an escape from the pain of ‘not being,'” he said.

Yarborough said some of his friends turned to gun violence.

“I didn’t care if I lived or died, and I know a lot of young brothers feel that way too,” said Yarborough.

Yarborough is one of the hundreds of students who have dropped out of school in Durham over the years and one of several that’s turned to the street as a way to cope.

In 2020 there was a rise in shootings, and a rising number of teens fell victim to gun violence.

Last year 39 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 were shot in Durham and three of those teens died.

Before COVID-19 hit, Durham County’s dropout rate was 4.03 percent in 2018-2019, the most recent full school year for which data is available. That rate is twice as high as the state’s average of 2.01 percent that same year.

Since 2017, more than 400 students in Durham Public Schools have dropped out of school every year.

Last year, Durham County’s dropout rate was almost cut in half as the rate fell to 2.26% with 246 students dropping out of school.

Officials with Durham Public Schools said COVID-19 played a factor in this and they are not sure the rate is going to stay this way once the pandemic ends.

In a recent study published in the American Economic Journal, researchers from North Carolina found that raising the dropout age from 16 to 18 could help more kids stay in school and reduce crime.

Aron Gabriel is the superintendent of Newton-Conover City Schools where, through a pilot program, they were able to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18.

Gabriel said the district of 2,900 kids had 44 dropouts in 2012 before they raised the age to 18.

During the first year of the program in 2013, Gabriel said the number of dropouts fell to nine.

RELATED: Click here to view 2018-19 statewide dropout data

“It extends the conversation,” Gabriel said. “It’s kind of like, if I don’t think I can quit, I’m not going to think about it.”

Dr. Laverne Mattocks-Perry, executive director for Student Support Services at Durham Public Schools, said dropout prevention should start well before high school.

She said there needs to be more of a focus on providing extra support for at-risk students as early as kindergarten.

However, she said raising the dropout age could help keep more kids in school.

“I don’t think the answer is solely in increasing the age,” Mattocks-Perry said. “I do think we would be able to retain more students if it was at 18.”

As for Yarborough, he was able to obtain his GED and is now running his own food truck business.

He said he thinks raising the age to 18 could help kids get on the right path early on.

“It will make them get a diploma and they don’t understand how vital that is,” said Yarborough.

Currently, there is no pending legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly that would raise the dropout age in the state.

However, some lawmakers tell CBS 17 they are going to push for this in the future.

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