New campaign credited in decline of Miss. dropouts

Published 11:49 pm Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A new statewide campaign, along with other measures aimed at keeping students in school, appears to be working in northeast Mississippi with 22 school districts cutting their dropout rates.

The state’s “On the Bus” campaign is being carried out by the Mississippi Office of Dropout Prevention.

Since the Office of Dropout Prevention’s creation, 22 of 31 northeast Mississippi school districts improved their dropout rates — some dramatically — between the 2006 and 2007 school years. A third of the districts had dropout rates in the single digits in 2007.

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The state’s dropout average improved from 17.6 to 15.9 percent in those same school years. All districts were required to have dropout prevention plans in place by this year.

“Now that we have plans, we’re hoping to see the numbers improve even more,” said Sheril Smith, director of the state Office of Dropout Prevention.

Officials say improving education is considered essential to the economy.

“Jobs are shifting heavily from strong bodies to strong minds,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the CREATE Foundation, which has hosted regional summits on dropout prevention. And if the level of educational attainment doesn’t rise, Whitfield says, “we’re not going to be as attractive for entrepreneurs and advanced manufacturing.”

In Mississippi, the average per-capita income is $11,500 below the national average.

“All this calls for a better-educated work force,” Whitfield said.

The dropout rates, which reflect new national guidelines for counting those who leave school before they are supposed to graduate, ranged last year in northeast Mississippi from 2.1 percent in Pontotoc City Schools to 28.3 percent in Benton County Schools.

Even though the dropout rates for 22 of 31 northeast Mississippi school districts improved, 14 of the districts, including Tupelo and Lee County, sit above the state average of 15.9 percent. And half of those districts lost more than 20 percent of the 2007 class between freshman year and graduation day.

Among the most startling one-year improvements were in Baldwyn, where the dropout rate fell from 22.1 percent to 3.6 percent, and in Chickasaw County, which went from 11.6 to 2.6.

Baldwyn Superintendent Harvey Brooks said he can’t claim he’s unlocked the secret of preventing dropouts. “When you’re our size one or two kids can skew your numbers,” Brooks said.

Next year, the district hopes to add a Fast Track program to help students who have fallen behind in middle school with concentrated help in reading, math and language.

“It gives them a chance to be successful,” Brooks said. “When they lose hope, that when we’re going to lose them.”