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CREATE Foundation aims to boost region’s GED rates

Tupelo — Operation Breakthrough: The GED Connection aims to boost the percentage of Mississippi high school dropouts earning general education diplomas (GEDs), the equivalent of a high school degree, with the help of a $2.7-million proposal involving local two-year colleges.

“We’re testing the idea and getting good reception,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of CREATE, a regional organization promoting children’s welfare and economic improvement initiatives. “Even though our ultimate goal is to slow down the dropout rate, at least helping more dropouts earn GEDs will improve the workforce in Northeast Mississippi.”

According to 2000 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 60,000 people age 25 or older in the 10-county area served by Itawamba Community College (ICC) and Northeast Mississippi Community College (NMCC) do not have a high school diploma. This year, 342 students at ICC and 287 students at NMCC completed their GEDs.

“If we could double the number of people with GEDs, it could have a snowball effect,” said Whitfield.

The funding would cover transportation and childcare costs and the $42 GED testing fee for high school dropouts, who would earn $100 once they earned their GED. Whitfield said he didn’t foresee cost being an issue, especially when compared to money spent per pupil in high school.

“If you were spending $5,000 dollars on ‘Johnny’ and he drops out, you could make a good logical case of saying that $5,000 ought to follow him to a GED program,” said Whitfield, who teamed up with ICC and NMCC to collaborate on this innovative program. “Of course, our program doesn’t cost nearly that much.”

With the help of program-funded instructional assistants and counselors, Operation Breakthrough also hopes to increase the percentage of area high school dropouts who earn GEDs. Nationwide, only 66% of high school dropouts pass the GED exam.

Pam Meeks, director of Adult Basic Education at NMCC, called Operation Breakthrough “an awesome idea.”
“So many economically disadvantaged students cite transportation and childcare costs as the two main barriers that keep them from coming to class,” she said.

Once the source of funding is secured for a feasibility study, the program will require CREATE board approval before a fundraising campaign is kicked off. “We may still be several months away,” cautioned Whitfield.

Overall, the high school dropout rate in Northeast Mississippi hovers around 30%.

“The first battle is to recognize that we have a problem and do something about it,” said Whitfield. “If we don’t get the educational levels up, we’re going to suffer in this new economy.”

Wayne Stonecypher, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges (SBCJC), applauded Whitfield for his efforts to increase GED holders in the workforce. “We can’t survive if this trend continues while advances are being made in technology in the global marketplace,” he said. “Operation Breakthrough will make a marked difference.”

For the last two years, state education leaders have been discussing dropout prevention measures with state lawmakers. Stonecypher has a specific plan in mind with a $19-million price tag: “We’re proposing a dropout recovery program that needs to be part of a joint effort,” he said. “We need to find a way to give these folks who have dropped out a hard skill in the vocational program, anything from truck driving to welding to air conditioning/refrigeration. Put them in a community college for a semester or two, and at the same time, incorporate some basic adult education courses to give them an opportunity to be successful on the GED. I think it’s got a lot of potential, and we’re encouraging the legislature to provide additional resources for the new programs. We need to make a real emphasis on this part of the population.”

Randall Bradberry of the SBCJC said the Operation Breakthrough proposal “is right down the alley of what CREATE was intended for.”

“The concept of getting a more literate workforce is paramount,” he said.

Northeast Mississippi is home to the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs in the state, making it the upholstered furniture making capital of the world. Approximately 70,000 residents, or 20% of the working population, make a living in the manufacturing sector. However, the region has lost 6,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001, with 35% representing furniture-related jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a loss of another 5,800 jobs by 2012.

“The high school dropout rate in our state is a real problem, so any program to enable dropouts to get their GED is positive for the business community that hires them,” said Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. “Right now, because of the high dropout rate, many of our businesses are having to spend large sums providing remedial instruction to many people who can’t read very well or do basic math. Anything that is going to help overall the quality of knowledge of our workforce is welcomed.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

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