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Keeping kids in school a critical issue

As I See It

When I was just a mere lad, one of the popular folk songs was titled, “Where have all the flowers gone?” If my memory serves me correctly it was a hit record for the Kingston Trio. Music trivia aside, I find myself pondering the very serious question of “Where have all the students gone?”

Mississippi’s elected officials, as well as wannabe elected officials, are bombarding us with their commitment to education and training. To their credit, the 2003 Legislature, with approval of Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, did appropriate education funding at a record level for next year. Whether their incentive was a sincere concern for education or an attempt to buy votes with the voters own money I can’t say.

Nonetheless, they did treat education as top priority and awarded it a record 62% of the general fund budget.

So, what does that have to do with missing students? There is an elephant in Mississippi’s living room that nobody is brave enough to publicly acknowledge. Some 15,000-plus kids who enter the seventh grade disappear before they graduate. Gone. Right into thin air. That represents a loss of about 40%.

Here are the hard numbers. Each year more than 40,000 kids begin the seventh grade in Mississippi’s public schools. Each year about 25,000 graduate from high school. Thus, 15,000 kids drop through the cracks and do not complete high school. These numbers and percentages have not changed significantly in the last decade.

Most folks agree that a high school education is the bare minimum for success these days. So what are the prospects for all these dropouts? How will these kids learn the basic skills for survival, much less prosperity, in the increasingly high-tech world we live in? In short, the likelihood of their succeeding in the American dream is next to nothing.

Interestingly, this dropout problem does not occur in the private schools. Most of the kids who enter the seventh grade in private schools are still there to graduate from the 12th grade. More on this later.

If one elephant in the living room isn’t enough, there’s another one that’s just as big and bothersome. Only half of the students who enter our public universities make it to graduation. Though college dropouts are decidedly better off than high school dropouts are, the situation is still a matter of concern.

What’s happening? Why isn’t anyone discussing this problem and searching for a solution? To be fair, some our state’s leadership is deeply concerned and constantly seeking a solution.

From my experience and discussions with others in the field of education, the problem is twofold. First, kids do not realize that they are going to have to make a living on their own when they leave home and second, parents do not encourage their kids to prepare for the work world.

Middle-income parents don’t want to think about their kids becoming “workers.” Thus, they emphasize the importance of education as if it were the goal itself rather than a means to an end. Kids tire of school and quit without realizing that they are jeopardizing their future economic life. Their main concern is disappointing their parents. Once they dropout, they don’t come back.

Lower-income parents have little education and don’t inspire their kids to move up the socio-economic ladder. Having no experience with how life-changing an education is, they place no emphasis on staying in school. The kids drop out of school and the cycle of poverty and ignorance continues unabated.

Long-time legislator Robert Clark from Holmes County has sponsored bills in the Legislature several times to create an “education marketing board” to promote the value of education to Mississippians. We already have an Egg Board and a Beef Council to promote those things. Though I am hesitant to recommend creating another bureaucracy, perhaps an education marketing entity could help alleviate the dropout problem by touting the value of education as a valuable tool in preparing to enter the workforce.

Why don’t the private school kids drop out at the same rate as public school students? Well, it’s simple. Follow the money. Private school parents are paying twice for their kids education and they invest more time and attention in their schooling. There is a lesson here about the importance of parental involvement with their children’s education.

So, what’s to be done? Kids must come to understand the importance of education or Mississippi is doomed to remain on the bottom of the economic pile forever. To impact impressionable youngsters, getting an education has got to become the “cool” thing to do or they will succumb to peer pressure and underperform. Parental support is the key. Lacking that, perhaps an education marketing agency could take up some of the slack. Truth is, we are fooling ourselves if we continue to think Mississippi is entering the age of high-tech with 40% of our kids dropping out of high school.

Thought for the Moment — Sincerity and truth are the basis of every virtue. — Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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