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CMSD's dropout prevention program delayed

 

Sarah Fowler

 

Two weeks after its intended launch date, Project 2020 has yet to be implemented in the Columbus Municipal School District. 

 

Touted as a dropout prevention program, the project has been Dr. Martha Liddell's pet project since she became superintendent in June 2011. Liddell has traveled extensively throughout the state and to other parts of the country promoting Project 2020, including a February trip to California. Project 2020 logos are displayed throughout Brandon Central Office and information about the project can be found on the district's website. 

 

However, the program has not been approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. 

 

"MDE is aware of the Columbus school district's efforts and we are looking to implement some pilot programs there but those details haven't been worked out," said Patrice Guilfoyle, MDE Director of Communications. 

 

CMSD Public Information Officer Michael Jackson could not explain the delay in the program, which was supposed to have started on June 1. Liddell did not respond to calls for comment. 

 

According to prior board meetings, six e-centers will eventually be set up at various locations in Columbus. 

 

Using a web-based curriculum, the e-centers are each capable of accomodating 15 students ages 16-to-21. The students will be taught by a certified teacher online with a life coach on-site. 

 

Two e-centers have been approved so far: RTP Inc.- an educational consulting firm- and Genesis Church. A third location, Father's Child Ministry, is still in the approval process. 

 

Led by Pastor Darren Leach, Genesis Church is housed in the former Hughes Elementary School. 

 

RTP Inc. currently leases the building formally known as Union Academy from the district at a rate of $900 a month. The district, in turn, intends to rent two rooms at Union -- a facility the district still owns -- from RTP for $700 a month to house that e-center. In effect, RTP will be paying $200 a month to lease Union from the district. 

 

Liddell has said Project 2020 will be funded primarily by grant money. Questions and controversy have surrounded some of the project's funding, with the board initially voting to reject a $75,000 Walmart grant because they could not trace the origin of the check. 

 

In November, board members rejected the $75,000 check from Ginomai Ministries due to legal concerns. Operated by Leach, Ginomai is a local nonprofit organization. Liddell presented the board with the check on behalf of Leach from the Walmart Foundation. A letter from the Walmart Foundation suggests that Liddell requested the grant on behalf of Ginomai Ministries. 

 

The board questioned the legality of accepting a flow-through grant and rejected the donation. It was later revealed the check had already been deposited in the school's account without board approval. Then, in a specially called meeting later that month, the board voted 4-1 to accept the $75,000 under the condition the check be made out to CMSD, not to Ginomai Ministries.  

 

In prior interviews, Liddell said Project 2020 would acquire $158,000 in start-up funds from the Walmart Foundation's State Giving Grant. When she learned last July that the foundation would only donate $75,000, Liddell amended the grant request to $75,000. Liddell then claimed MDE would submit additional funding in the amount of $95,000, with the district being responsible for providing additional personnel, desks, tables, chairs and file cabinets. With MDE saying Project 2020 is not yet approved, it is unclear where the necessary funds will come from. 

 

When questioned in prior interviews about the lack of funding, Liddell answered, "Project 2020 is certainly not about any particular funding source. It's not about $75,000, it's not about $5. It's about recovering kids." 

 

In the 22-page grant submitted to the Walmart Foundation, three e-center costs were estimated at $48,000 per location for a life coach and parent/community involvement coach. 45 desktop computers and three color printers would be needed, costing $24,000. The web based curriculum, similar to Skype, would cost $36,000. Internet usage for the three centers would cost $7,200. 

 

The e-centers will also offer on-site daycare. 

 

The city of Birmingham, Ala., a city with a population more than 200,000, has a similar dropout prevention program called Dropout Recovery. It has one e-center. 

 

Since March, the school board has held four special board meetings with their fifth meeting tonight at 5:30. The board will meet tonight to discuss Liddell's job performance.

 

Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.

 

 

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