Students need more flexibility

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Mississippi needs more pathways for high school students to graduate in fewer than four years, one of the state’s top education officials said Friday at the CREATE Foundation’s fifth annual Dropout Prevention Summit.
Students should be able to graduate early if they can pass a rigorous exit exam, said Larry Drawdy, interim deputy state superintendent for school improvement and recovery.
“Not all students need four years of high school,” he said. “We need to provide opportunities as long as they demonstrate they can pass a test with high rigor.”
Drawdy was the last of eight speakers at the forum, which aims to help 31 Northeast Mississippi school districts increase their number of students who graduate.
Mississippi’s official dropout rate was 16.7 percent in 2009, the last year for which data is available. Its graduation rate was 71.4 percent.
Dropout rates for Northeast Mississippi districts range from 2.8 percent for Tishomingo County to 29.9 percent in Houston. Graduation rates go from 54.1 percent for Oktibbeha County to 87 percent for Booneville.
Drawdy’s remarks followed a presentation by Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver about a new pilot program that would allow freshmen to enroll in rigorous classes based on international norms.
Students in the program who pass a board exam after their sophomore year could either graduate early or enroll in upper level college preparatory classes.
Tupelo and Corinth are among four districts in Mississippi that will pilot the program this fall, and three more state districts could join them.
Drawdy said that many students leave school early because they are bored. He cited one school district where 13 seniors, all top students, had passed their state standardized tests but dropped out with one semester remaining.
They were bored, bullied and didn’t feel cared for, Drawdy said.
If the state could create ways for those students to graduate early, he said, it could direct money it now spends on 12th grade to early childhood education.
“Can you imagine how much better a student would be prepared for kindergarten if school districts had pre-k classrooms?” he said.
Early graduation wouldn’t work for all students, Drawdy said, acknowledging that some students thrive socially in a four-year high school environment. The state should continue to serve those students as well, he said.
Alabama Schools Superintendent Joe Morton also spoke at Friday’s forum about how his state increased its demands on students and then saw graduation rates rise.
The state implemented new requirements that all students take a foreign language. It also made its math standards more difficult. Students were placed in more challenging high school courses unless they opted out of them.
Alabama also created distance learning labs at every high school campus to allow students to take courses that couldn’t fit into their traditional schedules. The classes were available on nights or weekends, and students could take an unlimited number of courses.
Shortly after making these changes, the state improved its graduation rate over six years by 6.9 percentage points to 69.0 percent, the fourth best increase in the nation in 2008.
“I think Alabama and Mississippi have a lot of kindred spirit,” Morton said, “and we face a lot of the same problems.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.