In Mississippi and around nation, trying new ways to cut high dropout rates

Sunday, November 26th 2006, 4:29 pm
By: News On 6

CANTON, Miss. (AP) He was only in 10th grade but already 18, and still failing many classes. It's no mystery why Rico Simpson dropped out of Canton High School.

He became a statistic then, part of Mississippi's 26.6 percent dropout rate, and in the period that followed: jailed twice, lacking a full-time job, about to become an unwed father. But as he walks to the apartment he shares with his mother and sisters in a housing project here, Simpson, now 20, talks about starting to turn things around. ``I want to work on my GED,'' he says.

And after years of frustration, people like him may get a better chance to become more positive statistics.

As the nation's high school dropout rate has reached crisis levels, educational reformers in some of the most troubled places have decided old, gradual approaches that don't work must be uprooted and replaced with more radical strategies that might actually succeed.

Mississippi aims to be one of those places. Its dropout statistics are among America's worst, and attacking them is a major component of a bold initiative by state education Superintendent Hank Bounds, who wants to reinvent the wheel when it comes to public schools.

Teacher shortages, overcrowded schools, dated curricula and limited access to alternative education are among the problems that have driven the state's dropout rate.

Bounds' five-year plan to redesign the state's school system is projected to cost $125 million, money that must be approved by state lawmakers. That would pay for new courses, new equipment, retrained teachers, and the creation of seven career pathways that students in grades 10 through 12 can select.

Online courses, flexible classroom hours, and more study options that include dual college credit are among the components he believes will reduce the dropout rate.

``Mississippi has pumped a lot of money into education over the last three years, $333 million,'' Bounds said, explaining that most of it was for teacher salary increases and retirement costs. ``Why is it not working? I don't think you can point to any one thing.''

He also wants to raise $1 million for a dropout prevention campaign involving broadcast advertisements, billboards and flyers.

After growing up in Brooklyn, Miss., Bounds joined the Army National Guard to help pay for his college education.

``It took me six years to get the degree because I worked full-time and went to school,'' Bounds said. ``I think it would have been much easier if I had the type of opportunities that I'm talking about giving the kids now.''

Statistics show Mississippians can use the help. While about one-fourth of all Americans 25 and older have bachelor's degrees, the figure is only 17 percent in Mississippi. A cultural aversion to higher education, educators say, holds back some in the state, which has a 6.8 percent unemployment rate. The nation's unemployment rate is 4.4 percent.

Another figure shows how important high school graduation is economically: Adults don't have a diploma earn just 65 percent of those who do.

And that's hardly the only cost when students leave school early.

``When they drop out of school they drop out of the community, and the associated cost at the other end is an increased crime rate, not only law enforcement, but eventually prison. You have other costs in welfare,'' said Jay Smink, director of the National Dropout Center at Clemson University, who is helping Bounds with Mississippi's reforms.

The last few months, Bounds has been crisscrossing the state, trying to persuade business leaders to invest in the redesign project.

Already, BellSouth has donated $2.5 million for the state's virtual schools project, which will allow students to take courses online while officials address the teacher shortage.

``We hope that we can be at the table with educators. We know that the future of Mississippi depends on education,'' said Betty Byrd of BellSouth, a member of the dropout prevention advisory committee.

Mississippi is not alone in such efforts.

In Houston, Texas, the public school district began an initiative three years ago to reclaim dropouts by sending out volunteers to knock on the doors of missing students.

The volunteers, recruited from the city's corporate community, ``recovered'' about 800 dropouts in a district of roughly 250,000 students for the 2005-2006 school year.

``Our goal is to have an 85 percent graduation rate. We're not there yet,'' said Roberta Cusack, the Houston district's director of student engagement.

Another successful strategy for reducing dropout rates can be found in the Guilford County public schools in Greensboro, N.C., Smink said.

The district has opened six middle colleges, high school classrooms set on junior college campuses, that educate students who had left school or were at risk of becoming a dropout.

At the middle college at Guilford Technical Community College, 17-year-old Jamie Breland is taking courses for college credit. She plans to become a schoolteacher.

Breland wasn't as sure about her future two years ago, when she became an unwed mother at 15. She quit Andrews High School in Greensboro, telling herself that she would just homeschool to maintain her education.

``Taking care of my son and trying to get my work done, it all went down the drain. I just quit doing it after about a month,'' Breland said.

A friend told her about GTCC, which has a 98 percent graduation rate.

``I've gone from skipping school all the time, getting involved with the wrong people, and I'm really proud of myself,'' Breland said.

Surrounded by college students, the high schoolers feel comfortable pursuing a diploma or a working toward a two-year associate's degree, said principal Tony Wadlington.

``We are like a family school. We look at each individual student's story and try to understand that, and do what we need to do to make sure they graduate,'' he said.

Since the Greensboro district started middle colleges its dropout rate has decreased, from 5.97 percent in 2000 to its current 2.98 percent.