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Some school districts already have dropout prevention programs

Mississippi’s education community welcomes a new state dropout prevention initiative, but many school districts have already begun programs aimed at keeping at-risk students in the classroom.

The state Department of Education will officially begin its initiative on Wednesday during a meeting in Jackson.

State Education Superintendent Hank Bounds has said that the plan is designed to reduce the state’s 35- to 40 percent high school dropout rate by providing teenagers with alternative school hours and the option of online courses.

Julie Jordan, vice president of the Mississippi School Board Association, in Jackson on Tuesday for an annual school board conference, said a statewide program is greatly needed.

“We can’t just keep ignoring it and being ashamed of it or whatever. We have to face it and deal with it,” said Jordan.

Jordan, a school board member for Columbus Public Schools, said the district of 4,800 students has a dropout rate that is about the same as the state average. She said the district began its own prevention program about a year ago by outsourcing its alternative education to an out-of-state company.

Ombudsman Educational Services, based in Libertyville, Ill., operates an education center in Columbus where at-risk students can receive a diploma from the company or pursue academic courses that will get them back into regular classrooms. The company’s contract with the district is $250,000, said Jordan.

“This is our first year so we don’t have any results yet. We know that attendance is up so that’s a real positive sign,” said Jordan, adding that about 50 students are enrolled in the alternative program.

The students are required to spend only three hours a day at the center, allowing them to return to jobs or other obligations, she said.

“The real objective is to get them back into the classroom so they can graduate with their peer group,” Jordan said.

Carrie Clark, a spokeswoman for Ombudsman, said the Columbus site is the only one the company operates in Mississippi. Ombudsman has more than 70 centers in 13 states, Clark said.

In Claiborne County, Superintendent Annie Kilcrease said her district doesn’t have a dropout problem, mainly because of aggressive prevention programs.

The district has three parent coordinators and a computerized system that contacts a parent or guardian if a student is absent from school. School officials also make home visits, Kilcrease said.

“When students are absent we immediately get on top of it and find out why,” said Kilcrease, who said her district’s graduation rate is 96 percent — far higher than the state average of about 61 percent.

The Clinton Public School District, which has about 5,000 students and an 88 percent graduation rate, began a program about seven years ago, said Denotris Jackson, president of the Mississippi School Board Association.

Jackson said officials identify sixth-graders who are a couple of years older than their classmates for the alternative program. She said students are placed in an alternative setting of no more than eight students.

“This program has been extremely successful with some of our students — so much so that at the end of the school year some of them have been evaluated and can return to their regular classroom,” she said. “But their parents will request that they remain at the alternative setting to get caught up.”