Region shows mixed success on dropouts

The latest dropout rates released by the Mississippi Department of Education on Thursday revealed mixed success for Northeast Mississippi districts.
The latest statistics track students who entered in ninth grade in the fall of 2005 and were on pace to graduate in May 2009. They look at the percentage of students who graduated, who completed high school and who dropped out.
Fourteen of the region’s 31 school districts improved their dropout numbers from 2008. Twenty-one of the 31 were better than the state’s dropout average of 16.7 percent.
Compared to 2006, the oldest statistics computed under the current model, 16 districts have improved their dropout percentages and 15 have declined.
“One thing that strikes you is the wide variety of results,” said CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield, who has extensively studied the state’s dropout numbers.
“The second thing that strikes me is that overall we haven’t seen much improvement since the 2006 rate. I am encouraged there are some bright spots in our districts and that all of our districts are trying to reduce the rates as is clear by their participation in the four Dropout Prevention Summits that we have held.”
CREATE began holding the annual summits for Northeast Mississippi districts four years ago, with an average of 28 districts participating.
“They are all interested in trying to identify the problem and analyze the issues and develop meaningful solutions,” Whitfield said.
Tupelo’s dropout rate was 20.1 percent, up slightly from 19.7 percent in 2008 and 19.3 percent in 2006.
Lee County’s rate was 19.6 percent, down from 22.7 percent in 2008 but slightly higher than its 19.3 percent in 2006.
Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver said the district is working to decrease its dropout rate by adding a program that helps students who are at least two years behind their peers to get caught up and another for school-aged mothers.
The district also has contracted with an outside company to improve the academics at its alternative school and is trying to increase enrollment in its pre-kindergarten program so that more kids are exposed to literacy at an early age.
“First and foremost, you have to look at catching those kids who are falling through the cracks,” Shaver said.
Lee County Superintendent Mike Scott said the district has focused on kids who are struggling and has done a better job with its GED program.
“We’ve also done a better job with interventions throughout the district,” Scott said.
“Our high school principals have also done a better job of meeting with parents and letting them know the importance of finishing.”
Only two districts in the state improved each of the last four years: Booneville and Tishomingo County.
“We’re just bound and determined for every student we have to be successful, and we refuse to give up on anybody,” said Booneville Superintendent Ricky Neaves.
Booneville dropped from a 13.1 dropout rate in 2006 to 5.3 in 2009. Neaves said that counselors will notify principals when a student is struggling, and an administrator, teacher or coach who has made a personal connection with that student will reach out to him or her, sometimes even making home visits.
Tishomingo County had an even more significant drop, going from 18.9 percent in 2006 to 2.8 percent this year.
Superintendent Malcolm Kuykendall said his district has a strong GED program and that he’s also seen a positive impact from a mass communication system that notifies all parents whose children are not in school by 8:15 a.m.
“I think our teachers have done a good job of motivating high school kids,” Kuykendall said. “In this day and time, you can’t let anyone drop out.”
The top five districts in Northeast Mississippi this year were Tishomingo County (2.8 percent dropouts), Booneville (5.3), Union County (6.3), Chickasaw County (7.0) and Pontotoc County (7.2).
Union County Superintendent Ken Basil attributed his district’s success to its teachers.
“In our situation, each school is so small that if we have one or two dropouts, it really affects us one way or the other, so our success is a testament to the teachers reaching out to every student,” he said.
The five lowest districts in Northeast Mississippi were Houston (29.9 percent dropouts), South Tippah (27.1), West Point (25.2), Nettleton (22.1) and Marshall County (21.8).
Three Northeast Mississippi districts kept their dropout rate below 10 percent for each of the last four years: New Albany, Oxford and Pontotoc County.
New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett credited his district’s success to a community that acts as a caretaker for students.
“The kids go to kindergarten together, and they move through all 13 grades together and play summer baseball and summer softball together,” Garrett said. “The community knows them all and buys into them all. Very few people walk through anonymously.
“I can’t tell you how many times I see someone in the community help somebody.”
Oxford Superintendent Kim Stasny said her district’s focus on dropout prevention begins in elementary school. She said school interventionists have done great things with struggling students, and graduation coach Marlon Bell has been an important resource for students who need help.
“He builds rapport with those kids who are at risk of dropping out and that really does a lot,” Stasny said.
Pontotoc County Superintendent Kenneth Roye cited extracurricular activities that attract different groups of students, like North Pontotoc’s archery team. He also noted a program at South Pontotoc that helps students who are two years behind their academic peers to get caught up.
“We have dedicated teachers and we have parents who expect their kids to go to school and expect them to do well in school,” he said.

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

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal