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In North Carolina, Cutting Diploma Requirements

Three years after dropping out, Elizabeth Carter is on track to graduate.

The US high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. But why? NPR Ed partnered with 14 member stations around the country to bring you the stories behind that number. Check out the whole story here. And find out what's happening in your state.

Three years ago, while still in high school, Elizabeth Carter drove with her boyfriend to the local courthouse on a whim. She wore blue jeans and a casual tee, and her stomach fluttered with butterflies – the bad kind.

"I kept telling myself 'You don't want to get married,' " the 21-year-old remembers. "But I did it anyway."

Five months later, her husband pressured her to quit her job at a gas station in Clinton, a small North Carolina town where the largest employer is a pork-processing plant. Carter had been a high-achieving student, but, without money, she struggled to get to school for her senior year and began failing classes.

Carter's counselors tried everything to keep her in class, she says. They even began chauffeuring her to and from her new, single-wide trailer home, which was far from the nearest bus route.

"I didn't want to be a burden," Carter says. "So I dropped out."

A year and a half later, when she returned to Clinton High School to enroll her younger sister, the school's dropout prevention coach reached out. Still, she was skeptical about going back.

"I was scared of what people would think," Carter says.

For the past few years, many of North Carolina's 115 districts have been looking for ways to help at-risk students like Elizabeth Carter graduate by reducing the number of courses required to graduate.

School leaders say some struggling students should focus only on completing the minimum 22 credits the state requires. They argue that allowing them to forego the few extra classes often mandated by local districts increases the chances they'll graduate and, as a result, earn a decent wage once they hit the workforce.

For Carter, that meant just two classes stood between her and graduation (math and English). So she attended school each morning until 10:45 a.m., then spent the rest of the day working a register at KFC.

The diploma Carter will officially earn in June won't qualify her for a four-year university, but she's already been accepted into a community college about an hour from home, in Raleigh.

There, she'll take the next step toward her ultimate goal: To study at a four-year college and become a chef. Carter, who says she's been cooking since she was 11, hopes to someday move to southern Florida and learn to cook Cuban cuisine.

"I didn't think it would take me this long," she says with a smile. "But I think I did good."

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