OPINION: Communities can help with dropout reduction

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Small cities and rural areas do have advantages in decreasing school dropout rates. The answer lies in community spirit.
Officially, Mississippi’s average dropout rate is around 17 percent, but CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield said it may be even higher.
Superintendents across Northeast Mississippi recently held a Dropout Prevention Summit to discuss ways to bring that number down. At the meeting, several superintendents spoke about how much of a difference community support can make.
The key is to make sure that every student is known from a young age. Alienation is a big factor that leads kids to drop out. A small, caring community can limit the number of kids who grow up anonymously.
Youth sports are a big part of that, New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett said. Because so many kids play baseball, softball, T-ball and soccer, they come in contact with prominent adults in the community who coach their teams. Those coaches help serve as eyes and ears for the school district, noticing problems the children may be having at home. Coaches can serve as role models for kids with personal problems.
Oxford Superintendent Kim Stasny said that caring adults can really make a difference.
“Knowing someone cares encourages you to keep going,” Stasny said.
The same is true of churches and youth groups. Garrett said that in his district, school teachers often teach Sunday school classes as well.
“Kids keep going to places where everyone knows them,” Garrett said.
Some school districts have mentor programs that pair community members with students who are struggling. Tupelo High School has one that gives some of its students a person they can trust to talk to about problems they’re having.
Whitfield stresses that Mississippi’s economy can’t fully grow until the state decreases its high dropout numbers. For that to happen, it will require more than the efforts of school leaders.
Everyone in the community can play a big role by getting to know young people in the community, making sure they feel supported and keeping an eye on them when they face struggles.
The more a community knows its kids, the better.

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.