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NASD officials preventing dropouts with extended school day program

Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — Orlando Pannell is the administrative consultant and child find liaison for the Natchez-Adams School District, where he is charged with finding students who have dropped out of the district and encouraging them to return.
Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — Orlando Pannell is the administrative consultant and child find liaison for the Natchez-Adams School District, where he is charged with finding students who have dropped out of the district and encouraging them to return.

NATCHEZ — The traditional school model wasn’t working anymore for Cortez Ford in March 2012 when he stopped attending Natchez High School.

The Natchez native grew up as an honor roll student in the Natchez-Adams School District but admitted he began veering off course in seventh grade.

A few years later during his senior year, Ford left NHS’ campus for what he thought would be the last time.

“I was going through a lot of personal stuff at the time, and it was just getting to be too much to deal with that and school,” Cortez said. “I was just tired.”

Then Ford, 20, got a phone call from Orlando Pannell, an NASD consultant charged with leading a dropout recovery program in the district.

“They told me I wound up getting good grades on all my state tests and that they had started an after-school program if I wanted to come back and finish up,” Ford said. “They pretty much gave me every opportunity possible to come back and finish.”

Cortez is one of eight students who successfully completed the district’s extended school day program last school year and received a high school diploma or GED.

The program was created to address a dropout rate that has been plaguing the high school for years. The Mississippi Department of Education last year identified the district as having a 50-percent graduation rate, meaning one out of two students dropped out before graduation.

Since the program was created within the district, the high school’s graduation rate has increased to 65 percent.

“We anticipate our graduation rate to rise even higher this year,” Superintendent Frederick Hill said. “We can attribute that particularly to what we’re doing with the extended school day program.”

Continuing to offer alternative educational methods, Hill said, for all students will be critical to helping improve the graduation rate and move the district forward.

“I’m trying to get away from that one size fits all model,” Hill said. “For the ones that doesn’t work for, we need to come up with alternatives.

“It’s important that we provide an education to all the kids, but also make sure we’re doing what we can to help them graduate and move on.”

Child find

As Pannell and a handful of volunteers passed out chips, juice and cake to 168 Morgantown Middle School students Thursday afternoon, he hoped he was nipping one of the district’s problems in the bud.

The students received the treats because their birthdays were in the months of August and September, but also because they had no disciplinary infractions.

“If these kids understand that they have people behind them pushing them to succeed, they’re not going to be thinking about dropping out — they’re thinking about being successful,” Pannell said. “Anything we can do to provide positive reinforcement and get these kid’s minds set on graduation and moving on to upper education is going to help in the long run.”

Pannell was hired as an administrative consultant in September 2012 and was charged with helping reduce dropout rates in the district.

Pannell’s contract was extended in August to continue being an administrative consultant as well as child find liaison.

Through the child find program, Pannell seeks out students who have dropped out or decided not to attend school anymore and offers them alternative solutions to complete their education.

The students are given the option to come to a computer lab at the high school anytime between 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday to complete lessons. Students can also complete those lessons on computers from the convenience of their home.

The amount of hours or classes students need to take, Pannell said, depends on what the student is lacking in order to graduate.

“Basically, when we make it accessible for the kids and remove all of the opportunities for them to say, ‘It doesn’t fit me,’ they will come in and complete the program,” Pannell said. “Whether it be through the GED or the standard diploma track, getting these kids back is what’s important.”

From putting up fliers at apartment complexes to talking to other students who have decided to return to school, Pannell said the most important part of his job is to be an advocate for those students who might not have a voice.

“These kids need a voice, and I want to help be their advocate and do whatever I can to help them get back on track or keep them on track,” Pannell said. “If you continue to offer them support and positive role models in the community, they will eventually say, ‘OK I need to become a productive citizen.’”

Back on campus

When Ford realized he only needed four more credits to receive his high school diploma and he could take classes on his own time through the extended school day program, the light at the end of the tunnel became a little brighter.

“The after school thing helped a lot because I do it on my own time,” Ford said. “It offers a mix of everything as far as material — you do the lessons on the computer and then go back and take the tests or write a few essays.”

While on his way to completing his four remaining credits, Ford found out about the GED program and realized it offered the same benefits of a high school diploma with less time commitments.

Ford said he soon realized that the high school equivalency diploma was the best route for him and quickly signed up to take the test.

“I started to figure out more toward the end of the year that I didn’t have time to finish up the credits for the regular diploma,” Ford said. “I never really knew anything about the GED, but then when they told me it was just as good as a regular diploma I signed up and passed the test.”

Since receiving his GED in May, Ford said he has balanced a few jobs and is currently in the process of saving to hopefully attend Copiah-Lincoln Community College as soon as possible.

The option to attend any college or university, Ford said, wouldn’t have been possible without the help of several people in the school district.

“If it wasn’t for Mr. Orlando and the people in that guidance office, I would have never came back,” Ford said. “I’m better off than I was before, and I’m working to get to where I want to be.”