Dropout prevention initiatives gaining momentum On the Bus

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Published: February 11,2008

Mississippi leads the nation in the rate of students who drop out of high school. Now, however, plans are in place to lead in prevention efforts. New initiatives put in place by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) are bringing people together from numerous sectors to fight this problem.

Under the leadership of State Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds, a Youth Advisory Board was established, adult and youth summits were organized and an anti-dropout campaign was launched. Dubbed “On the Bus,” the campaign is funded by a $1.5-million grant from State Farm to the Public Education Forum of Mississippi. In 2006, the state Legislature funded the Office of Dropout Prevention within the MDE. In September of that year, Dr. Sheril Smith became director of that office.

“We’re asking community and business leaders, faith-based leaders and parents to get on the bus with us to help reverse this trend and keep our kids moving in the right direction,” Bounds said. “Through our Youth Advisory Board and Teen Summit, students from every public school came together to chart a new destination for themselves and their peers. These teens will return to their schools and provide peer leadership focused on making graduation the destination for every student.”

Smith is optimistic about the prevention programs now in place, noting that the latest dropout figures will show some decline. Those figures were not ready for release at press time but she said they would be made public.

“We are already seeing some results as reported by school districts around the state,” she said. “School districts are getting on board and are excited about what we’re doing.”

The biggest hurdle for solving the problem is ensuring participation from all parts of communities so the effort is not seen as only a school district issue. “We’re finding out the needs of students and what parents need to know for better communication with schools,” Smith said. “We’re making sure all members of the community are on the bus.”

Toward that end, she said the efforts are being supported by the business community as reflected in registration for a February 28 adult summit to be held at First Baptist Church in Jackson. Speakers will include Alma Powell, wife of Gen. Colin Powell and chair of America’s Promise Alliance; Gov. Haley Barbour; and, Bounds.

America’s Promise Alliance is the nation’s largest collaborative alliance of partners whose mission is to improve the well-being of children and young people. The organization is sponsoring the summit along with State Farm and MDE. Mississippi is the first of several states to host statewide summits on dropout prevention.

Attacking the problem

“Mississippi is leading the nation in attacking the dropout problem,” said Kathy Havens Payne, senior director of education leadership for State Farm. “State Farm is investing time and resources to support this work because we believe the energy and focus on the state and local levels create a unique opportunity not just to affect, but to totally transform attitudes and expectations regarding school completion.”

Smith said hundreds are expected to attend, including state and local leaders from all sectors — business, faith-based, economic, community, government and education. “They will focus on the critical issue of reducing our dropout rate by 50% over the next five to seven years,” she added. “Everyone is getting enthusiastic and on board.”

Caron Blanton, director of communication for MDE, said the summit crowd will break into small groups by counties to discuss issues in their areas and what can be done. Smaller counties with fewer people in attendance will be paired with others. Registration is going well and can be done online at www.destinationgraduationsummit.com through February 15. Information is also available by calling MDE at (601) 359-5743.

“We want a cross section of school board members, mayors, aldermen, business leaders and representatives of faith-based groups to get broad-based input. We don’t want it to be just teachers and superintendents,” she said. “It really is a community issue and takes all of us working together to solve it. The reasons students drop out may not be school related matters.”

All local districts have dropout prevention teams, and they’re all working to develop a plan to be turned in to MDE.

The On the Bus campaign includes the Web site www.OnTheBus.ms, two 30-second television spots, one 60-second radio spot and billboards. It is hoped the high-impact television spots will draw attention to the stark statistics and future awaiting dropouts. Some 600 students, led by the Youth Advisory Board, gathered in Jackson last month to launch the campaign and develop teen-led strategies to address the dropout pro

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.blem.

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