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NEW TRADITIONS: Southern Governors’ Association Offers Strategies to Address Low Graduation Rates Among Rural Schools

"somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of teenagers who go into the ninth grade do not come out of the twelfth grade four years later."

Through the 1990s and the early years of this decade, states in the southern part of the United States did more than the rest of the country to raise high school graduation requirements, largely thanks to the efforts of strong “education governors” such as former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley and former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt. However, while the region placed a strong emphasis on improving achievement, it was not as aggressive in ensuring that students stayed in school and graduated, according to New Traditions: Options for Rural High School Excellence, a new report from the Southern Governors’ Association (SGA).

Over the last several years, the South has made huge strides in increasing teacher certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, expanding opportunities to enroll in advanced placement classes, and boosting college going among African Americans and Latinos. However, the report found that at the same time, “somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of teenagers who go into the ninth grade do not come out of the twelfth grade four years later.” Along with the rise in dropouts, more young people are opting for a GED-despite the fact that this alternative degree’s recipients do not fare as well in the modern economy as students who earn their diploma.

The report notes that the southern part of the United States is transforming from a “farm-and-factory economy” to a “new economy that rewards thinking, team-work, entrepreneurial skills and learning over a lifetime.” At the same time, many southern high schools operate under the burdens of what the report calls “rural disadvantages” that include a weak and declining business base, a shallow tax base, isolation from job-growth centers, aging public facilities, an inability to attract teachers, and a heavy concentration of households living in or near the poverty level. (For additional information on the challenges that rural schools face, see the last issue of Straight A’s at

In order to exploit the opportunities of the new economy, the report says, students must have an education beyond high school to qualify for most jobs that sustain a middle-class standard of living. It warns that a rise in dropouts both “diminish[es] an individual’s prospects in life” and affects the “community’s civil well-being and competitiveness.”

In an effort to learn the best practices-and share the lessons-of successful high schools with high-minority and/or high-poverty populations, SGA staff coordinated teams of educators and education policymakers to focus on the needs of rural and small town high schools. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the SGA team visited the Julia Richman Complex/Urban Academy in New York City, Poland Regional High School in Maine, Shaw High School in Shaw, Mississippi, and Swain County High School in North Carolina.

Several recommendations emerged from the site visits and were included in the final report. For example, states should focus on increasing their rates of degree attainment and “stifle the drift of teenagers toward the GED.” It found that transition periods-from eighth to ninth grade and the twelfth-grade transition out-were crucial opportunities to collect data on which students make it, which students do not, and why.

It suggested that high schools need to give students more options, without lowering standards, in their pursuit of a diploma. The report focused on principal leadership, the need to create leadership teams of teachers and principals, and the mutual benefit that collaborations with public universities and public high schools could offer. The report also picked up on the need for teacher incentives such as salary bonuses, housing assistance, and loan forgiveness for recruiting teachers into hard-to-staff schools, but also noted the importance of pairing new teachers with veteran mentor teachers.

The full list of recommendations and the complete report are available at

Video Highlights from the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Second Annual Conference on American High School Policy Now Available

I can tell you from the response that we’ve gotten from other governors around the country-from both parties-there is an enormous amount of interest in redesigning the American high school.

– Virginia Governor and National Governors Association Chairman Mark Warner

Governor Warner’s complete address at the Alliance for Excellent Education’s second annual conference on American high school policy, as well as other keynote addresses from William RaspberryDr. Anthony Carnevale, Senior Fellow, National Center on Education and the EconomyDr. Pedro Noguera, Professor, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University, are now available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.