Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

High school dropout rates in the Mother Lode remain comparatively low, but local educators say one dropout is still too many.

For the 2011-12 school year, Tuolumne County's high school dropout rate was 3 percent, according to data recently released by the California Department of Education. In Calaveras County, the rate was 1.9 percent.

Both counties were below California's overall rate of 4 percent.

The percentages translate to 68 of 2,233 Tuolumne County high schoolers dropping out and 42 of 2,158 dropping out in Calaveras County.

Ten fewer Tuolumne County students dropped out in 2011-12 than in the previous school year, while the number increased by two in Calaveras.

In California, 79,413 of about 2 million high schoolers dropped out during the 2011-12 school year, a decrease from the previous year's 83,469.

"If you even have one kid drop out, to me that's a concern," said Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools Kathy Northington. "We want all kids to finish and complete school."

State dropout data comes with caveats. The numbers do not include all students who return to seek diplomas in an adult education program after they turn 18, and it may report some transferring students as dropouts.

But the stakes are high, since studies have shown that dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated or rely on public assistance.

"It's a huge drain on our society," said Calaveras County Director of Alternative Education Scott Nanik. "I hate to see kids drop out, and I think we need to do more as schools to support them to finish."

The average high school dropout earned $20,241 in 2010, about $10,000 less than high school graduates and $20,000 less than those with associate's degrees, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

High school dropouts have a tougher time finding jobs to begin with. The unemployment rate was 10.7 percent for high school dropouts in June, compared with 3.9 percent among those with bachelor's degrees.

On both a local and statewide level, students were most likely to drop out during their senior year. Thirty-six Tuolumne County seniors dropped out last year, and 26 dropped out in Calaveras County, according to the state dropout data.

"I think they're just tired of school and they just don't see an end in sight," Nanik said. "Many don't have good family support, and students in that boat have a hard time connecting their academic requirements with real life."

The highest local dropout rates were at alternative schools such as Calaveras Unified School District's alternative high schools, Sonora's Ted Bird High School independent study program, and Gold Rush Charter School.

Such programs serve students who are already at risk of dropping out, need more time to finish or didn't succeed in a traditional high school environment, making comparisons with traditional schools unfair.

Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin credited the same programs for helping lower the area's overall dropout rates by "capturing" students who need an alternative.

"Our school districts offer really good options for students to continue their education and achieve that diploma," Bulkin said.

One is a Tuolumne County Office of Education program for pregnant students, a population at high risk of dropping out. The program serves about six girls every year, according to Bulkin.

She called independent study an "underrecognized" way for students to earn their diplomas when a traditional high school environment isn't working for them.

It's available to all students who demonstrate the ability to work independently, and online classes are often a good solution, she said.

Northington and Bulkin both said chronic absenteeism is a strong indicator that students will drop out. Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have school attendance review boards, or SARBs, that work to return students to school before it's too late.

SARBs include representatives from local organizations such as behavioral health departments and nonprofits. If families don't send their kids to school after appearing before the SARB, they can be referred to court and fined.

And the Calaveras County Office of Education is launching an outreach effort this fall to reinforce the importance of school attendance, Northington said.

She pointed out that students are less likely to leave when they feel strong connections to educators or other adults at school.

"We need to take more time to understand what's going in their lives and be creative to make things work for them," Nanik said. "We could offer online solutions - anything to give the student hope that they could finish."

He and Northington said a new set of state teaching guidelines, the Common Core State Standards, could help keep students in school by focusing more on real-world problems than the rote memorization of facts.

"We're trying to put hands-on learning back in schools," Nanik said. "We're trying to make it real for them."