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Nissan jumps On the Bus to help keep Mississippi kids in school

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) just added a really wealthy passenger On the Bus.

On the Bus, the MDE’s ongoing dropout prevention program, received a $100,000 boost recently when Nissan North America decided it wanted to help keep kids in school.

The money will be split among public school districts in the counties whose workers are home to employees of the Nissan plant in Canton. Those school districts include: Canton, Clinton, Hinds County, Holmes County, Jackson Public Schools, Madison County, Pearl, Ranking County, Yazoo City and Yazoo County.

Money will be distributed based on each school district’s dropout rate, the latest figures for which are available for the graduating classes of 2005 and 2006. Set to receive the biggest payout is the Canton School District, whose dropout rates in 2005 (61.7%) and 2006 (59.8%) were the highest. Madison County Schools had the lowest rates, with 15% of students not receiving their diploma in 2005 and 16.2% in 2006.

Creating and sustaining a viable workforce for its plant was the impetus for Nissan to donate to the effort, said vice president of manufacturing Dan Bednarzyk.

“I’m here to challenge all business, large and small, to get on the bus,” Bednarzyk said at a press conference announcing the corporation’s gift. “And it doesn’t have to be money. It can be tutoring, job shadowing or mentoring. But everybody can do something. The public education system and Mississippi’s economic well-being go hand in hand.”

Bednarzyk said representatives from each school district will meet with Nissan officials May 5 to submit their proposals that will outline how to spend the dropout-prevention funds. Follow-up evaluations of each district will take place in the spring of 2009.

Alerting the community to the severe consequences of not finishing high school is where Canton will start.

“That’s our main purpose,” said Superintendent Dwight Luckett. “We need to bring parents on board.”

Luckett said his district had already formed a committee to look at the most effective ways to spend the money.

He also listed shoring up student discipline, providing them incentives for solid academic performance and brining in motivational speakers as other means of keeping kids in school.

“We also need to take our students outside the (Canton) community,” Luckett said. “A lot of our kids have never even been to Jackson. And this has to start early, in elementary school.”

Dr. Tommye Henderson, Clinton Schools superintendent, said her district has already used prevention programs to cut the dropout rates in the past. Nissan’s gift will just further those programs, she said.

“School districts are not used to getting monetary gifts,” she said. “The money’s extremely important, but it’s the other things — mentoring and tutoring — that make such a huge difference. This will expand that.”

The MDE started its On the Bus campaign late last year through a grant from State Farm Insurance to the Public Education Forum. On the Bus seeks to cut the state’s overall dropout rate — which hovers around 30% — in half during the next five to seven years. Numbers provided by the MDE put the annual cost of dropouts to taxpayers at $458 million.

“We have a significant dropout issue in this state,” Dr. Hank Bounds, state superintendent of education, said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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