Dropout prevention is a team effort

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 19, 2008

Last week, the Mississippi Department of Education released the graduation, completion and dropout rates for the Class of 2007. In many ways, it is a good news/bad news story.

First, the good news: We are making progress in reducing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate. We had 187 more graduates in the Class of 2007 than we had in the Class of 2006. When you consider the increased earning potential of a high school graduate when compared to a high school dropout, those 187 graduates will earn about $53 million more over their lifetime than their counterparts who dropped out. In addition, that’s 187 Mississippians who will use fewer state resources in terms of social services. So, that is very good news for Mississippi’s economy — $53 million is a great return on our investment.

Now, the bad news: This is not a victory party. We are still a long way from where we need to be. We are on the right track, but there is still much work to be done.

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We have been focusing on dropout prevention for the past three years, but in the last year, we have really seen a surge in efforts focused on this issue. The numbers we have now are from the Class of 2007, who graduated before our “On the Bus” campaign was launched and before local groups submitted their local dropout prevention plans created by their local dropout prevention teams. As they begin implementing those plans, I expect to see even greater progress being made.

Of course, being able to measure progress accurately begins with a good system. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently announced that the USDE was moving to require all states to use the National Governors Association method. Mississippi is one of only a handful of states that can do that at this time. The NGA method requires that you track a 9th through 12th grade cohort group, with only first-time ninth graders included.

Using the NGA method, the graduation rate for the Class of 2007 is 73.8 percent, while the dropout rate is 15.9 percent. The graduation rate for the Class of 2006 was 70.8 percent, while the dropout rate was 17.6 percent.

There is a drawback to the NGA method in that it only tracks students from 9th grade forward. We know that we have almost 2,000 students who leave the 8th grade and never make it to the 9th grade. There are also anomalies in the data from the district level and we are addressing that issue through focused monitoring and technical assistance.

We know that children start dropping out the day they are born. So how do we create success for Mississippi’s boys and girls and economic prosperity for Mississippi?

The State Board has been very bold in creating two over-arching goals for the state:

To reduce the dropout rate by 50 percent in the next five to seven years.

To reach the national average on national assessments in the next five to seven years.

They have identified five strategies to help attain these goals:

To increase the rigor of the curriculum and assessment system

To increase the quantity and quality of teachers

To increase the quantity and quality of school leaders

To create a culture in Mississippi that values education

To redesign education for the 21st Century workforce in Mississippi

We have several initiatives under way to implement these strategies, including:

Redesigning middle and high schools

Focusing on early education

Aligning our curriculum and assessment system with national standards

Informing the public about the dropout problem through the “On the Bus” campaign and summits

Working with the Mississippi Center for Education Innovation, which is funded through a $16.9 million investment from the Kellogg Foundation

However, we cannot solve this problem alone. We need your help.

Now is when we turn our attention to the grassroots level work. Now is the time for parents, faith-based organizations, business leaders and civic organizations to demand excellence from their communities’ schools and help to achieve that excellence. I encourage you to be a part of making change occur.

This is an important milestone, but it is far from the end of the journey. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that all students graduate and become contributing members of society. I look forward to working with all of you to help our students attain a brighter future for themselves and create a better economy and better quality of life for all Mississippians.

Hank Bounds is the superintendent of the Mississippi Department of Education.