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Dropout program faces challenges at start-up


Carmen K. Sisson



The Columbus Municipal School District continues to move forward with its dropout prevention plan, dubbed "Project 2020," but the challenges have just begun. 


Although CMSD has enough grant funding to initiate the program, its financial future will depend largely upon either attracting enough students to become self-sufficient, receiving continued grant support or being funded by the district.  


While the cost of dropouts is high, the price tag for prevention and recovery is equally considerable. 


In a 22-page grant proposal submitted to the Walmart Foundation earlier this year, Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell estimated the district would need nearly $158,000 for the program's first year, with CMSD assuming the financial burden for future years.  


After learning the Foundation did not have enough money in its State Giving Fund for the initial budget proposal, Liddell in July submitted a revised budget of $75,000. The district will provide in-kind services worth $160,000.  


Though the $75,000 grant was awarded to a third party and donated to CMSD, it is unclear whether the school board will accept the money. A motion to accept the money failed on Nov. 15 when it did not receive a second.  


Liddell said the issue could be brought to the table again, but even if the board definitively rejects the money, Project 2020 can still get started thanks to a $95,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Education. 


She believes the program will recover enough students to become financially sustainable, but even if it doesn't, she says Project 2020 is worth the cost. 


"It's not a problem at all -- to us it's a starfish story," she said, referring to a tale in which a child attempts to save thousands of starfish, telling naysayers that though one person may not save them all, they can each save one.  


"We recover as many students as we can," Liddell said. "$75,000 really is just a drop in the bucket. The picture is so much bigger than that." 




A national problem 


An abundance of data presents a clear image of the financial, societal and personal impacts of students who fail to graduate.  


The National Dropout Prevention Center, based at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., reports 60 percent of high school dropouts are unemployed, costing the country more than $200 billion each year in lost earnings and tax revenue. Those who find full-time employment earn an average of $9,245 less per year than their peers who earned diplomas. 


Dropout cost the nation even more as they are funneled from the classroom to jail cells. High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested; they account for 75 percent of the state prison population and 59 percent of federal prison inmates. Statistics estimate that a one percent increase in graduates could save approximately $1.4 billion in incarceration costs each year.  


A community concern 


Columbus High School's graduation rate fell from 72.4 percent to 69.7 percent last year, below the state average of 73.7 percent.  


Based upon state accountability rankings, the school received an "F," dropping from academic watch to low-performing -- and that was based solely upon test scores. The Mississippi Department of Education gave school districts a reprieve last year by not including graduation rates in the accountability measures after learning that all districts were not being held to the same standards.  


MDE estimates that if graduation rates had been included, six percent of the state's districts and three percent of the schools would have dropped another letter grade. 


Liddell said final numbers are still being compiled, but preliminary figures estimate approximately 146 students dropped out of the city school system last year, and those students -- located with the help of parents, teachers and the community -- will be on the "target list" for recovery.  


The state currently provides the district with $5,400 per enrolled student, meaning that in order to break even, the district will have to convince between 14 and 29 of those students to re-enroll.  


Liddell believes as many as 100 students can be recovered, returning more than half a million dollars to district coffers.  


"Project 2020 is certainly not about any particular funding source," Liddell said. "It's not about $75,000, it's not about $5. It's about recovering kids." 


She noted the city's crime rate and the number of juveniles being arrested. 


"This is a community concern, and for someone not to be concerned about that is ludicrous to me as an educator," she said. 




A pricey proposition 


Project 2020 is a two-pronged approach, incorporating both retention and recovery strategies, with the latter being the costliest of the two.  


Liddell proposes the creation of three community-based "e-centers," where students ages 16-21 can earn credits toward their high school diplomas and parents and members of the community can receive free job skills training and other services ranging from Internet usage to health and fitness activities.  


Churches, community centers and nonprofit agencies were invited earlier this month to apply to host the program, and Liddell said she expects to know soon which locations have been chosen.  


Providing the classes off-campus, in a different setting, is important, she said, even though the sites selected as e-centers will receive a $700-per-month lease fee. 


"Research tells us if I dropped out of school because I had an issue there -- it doesn't matter if I didn't like the color of the paint on the walls -- I'm not going back there," she said. "Community centers give school districts a chance of recruiting students back who need a high school diploma but they made a decision to leave Columbus High School and they're not going back." 


The costliest aspect of the e-centers will be personnel and technology.  


Based upon the three-center model initially presented in the Walmart Foundation proposal, it would cost $48,600 to provide a life coach and parent/community involvement coach for each center.  


A total of 45 desktop computers and three color printers would be needed, costing $24,000. A web-based curriculum, using Skype-based master teachers, would cost an additional $36,000, and an Internet usage contract for the three centers would be $7,200.  


The district would provide in-kind contributions of personnel -- with directors, administrators and counselors devoting 25 percent of their time to the e-centers -- along with routine maintenance and technical support. The district would also contribute tables, chairs, desks and file cabinets.  


Liddell said the arrangement would be similar to the way alternative schools are operated, with currently-employed teachers and counselors spending their planning periods at the e-centers.  


The district's resource officers would also be available, on an as-needed basis, to handle discipline and security issues. 


Liddell admitted though that the cost projections in the initial budget proposal were "padded," which she said is a common practice in grant-writing.  




Hopes and hype 


The program has been well-received, Liddell said, and she plans to provide free, "boots on the ground assistance" to school districts across the state who want to implement similar dropout prevention plans. 


She has spoken about Project 2020 at several conferences and was the keynote speaker at a recent Mississippi Public Broadcasting conference, but she rebuffed the notion of the events as "speaking engagements" and did not answer whether CMSD is paying for her travel or other expenses, though it is likely.  


"Every speaking engagement I go to is also a conference where we are being trained and learning about dropout prevention and other things we need to know in our school district," Liddell said. "It's professional development. But since I'm there, certainly I'm going to try to help, but all of it is professional development, so if there's a negative angle there, I'm afraid that wouldn't be it." 


She has also conducted workshops for the state department of education, and she said national publications and districts across the country have contacted her. 


"They're looking for places like Columbus that have visionary leaders and a city that understands how education links to the economy," she said. "There's no way to separate education from the economy, and they are looking for people brave enough, who have the energy and the passion and the intelligence, to write projects that make a lot of sense and can be replicated across the country. They feel like Project 2020 is one of those kinds of projects." 


But even officials at the National Dropout Prevention Center are unsure how effective such programs may be, and although there are abundant statistics supporting the need for dropout prevention and recovery, there is a dearth of empirical data supporting success rates.  


In a 2005 study of dropout risk factors and recovery programs across the nation, the NDPC took a cautionary approach, saying it was "difficult to conclusively identify effective programs," because many programs did not rigorously evaluate their effectiveness or provide long-term follow-up data. 


"Without clear evidence using control or comparison groups to show that a program has significant and lasting impact on dropout or other problem behaviors, it is difficult to identify quality or model programs or the components that make them effective," researchers concluded. 


But Liddell says Project 2020 will benefit students, while the additional parent and community training will provide a public service that, while it may be offered elsewhere through agencies like Greater Columbus Learning Center and the WIN Job Center, presents another option that will indirectly contribute to student achievement. 


"You know, I'm going to make my salary, whether I do this work or not," Liddell said. "I'm doing this work because it's important to me."


Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.



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