Communities must work together to address dropouts, educators and community leaders say

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
September 30, 2010

If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes the entire community to help ensure children graduate from high school.

That was a common theme from educators and community leaders who took part Thursday in a regional dropout prevention summit co-hosted by Indiana State University's Bayh College of Education and the state Dropout Prevention Steering Committee.

With Indiana's statewide high school graduation rate at 80.5 percent, communities face a challenge in meeting state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's goal of 90 percent by 2012, said Sue Foxx, alternative education consultant with the Indiana Department of Education.

"We're trying to figure out how to engage our communities to make sure all students graduate from high school prepared for college or the workforce. This is what has driven Dr. Bennett's vision," Foxx said.

The effort to keep students in school begins at the elementary level - and with good reason, Foxx said. About 23,000 Indiana students fail to graduate from high school in four years, a number that virtually mirrors the 25,000 third graders who cannot read at a third-grade level, she said.

That's why "Read on, Indiana!", which encourages the public to read to students in an effort to promote literacy, is an important part of the state's dropout prevention strategies.

The state Education Department, America's Promise and State Farm launched a statewide effort last year to lower the dropout rate. The event at Indiana State was one of six regional summits being conducted this fall to share ways communities have already come together to address the problem.

"There is research to support the need for a whole community approach to address the dropout rate. Teams across the state that are making a difference involve a variety of stakeholders, including schools, businesses, government officials and not-for-profit organizations," said Tonya Balch, assistant professor of counseling in Indiana State's Bayh College of Education.

"It has been a pleasure to hear local presenters at each summit sharing their unique story," she said. "Each county has different issues and their approach has been based upon their needs. I truly believe the regional summits are engaging and energizing county teams."

Presentations included research-supported alternatives from American Youth Policy Forum, which focuses on building career success, civic engagement and lifelong learning. A common theme includes a strong personal connection with students, data-driven programs and challenging curriculum.

Alternative programs in the American Youth Policy Forum presentation included early college, high school career academies, dropout recovery, alternative schools, afterschool and other expanded learning opportunities.

Members of the Monroe County Dropout Prevention Coalition, made up of K-12 and higher education representatives, the business community, United Way and the county's probation department, were selected to present at the summit.

"It's not just a school problem," said Matt Wysocki, director of workforce initiatives with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and a coalition member. "We all have a piece to play in this and so we all need to work together. We're proud to say we've had some success, although it's a work in progress and we still have a long way to go.

Monroe County began ramping up efforts to keep students in school about seven years ago through a program called "Nurturing Each to Success," Wysocki said.
The program has evolved to include such initiatives as graduation coaches in each of the three major county high schools. The coaches work with a small number of students at risk for dropping out, Wysocki said.

"They work with them intensively to get them to overcome barriers and get them through to graduation," he said.
The Monroe County Prosecutor's Office has placed probation officers in schools as "stay in school coordinators" and established an educational compliance court, using the drug court model, which brings at-risk students and family members into court each week.

"We give them praise and rewards for their positive attendance. We give them consequences and sanctions when they don't attend school," said Chrstine McAfee, juvenile probation supervisor. "If you look at why these youth are changing their behavior it's not because we have magic, it's because there's a relationship being built. We're also trying to build that relationship with the schools and having the youth build the schools."

Stay in school coordinators "did magical things" with middle school students, such as take them to their high school when it was empty and show them around, McAfee said. "So they didn't walk in the first day at
Bloomington High School North with 1,600 students, get terrified and turn around and go back home," she said.

Edgewood High School in Ellettsville uses a computer program called "The Edge" that allows potential dropouts nearing graduation to work at their own pace, using a computer,to complete their diploma.

"We saved probably 15 students last year that I'm sure would have dropped out," said Edgewood Principal Dirk Ackerman.

"We put students first in everything we do," he said. "We now allow students to use cell phones during lunch and passing periods and this has created a culture of students enjoying school."

Bucking a national trend, Edgewood shuns so-called "zero tolerance" policies except for criminal activities such as dealing drugs.

"There are a lot of gray areas in schools and working with students. To set zero tolerance policies, I don't think works," Ackerman said.

Many of the initiatives under way in Monroe County are also in place, in varying degrees, in Vigo County, said Ray Azar, director of school services with the Vigo County School Corp.

Ackerman and Azar agreed that Indiana's home school policies, which allow virtually any parent to home-school their child regardless of their qualifications, present a major obstacle to reducing the state's high school dropout rate.

"Indiana has the loosest home school rules in the nation and that has to change," Ackerman said.

Ernie Thompson, a school attendance officer in Vigo County, has helped establish a community mentoring program aimed at keeping students in school, and the program's volunteer mentors are dedicated to student success, he said.

"People in this community really care," Thompson said. "When a child comes to a mentor for help in science or math, they (the mentors) don't run away."

Darrell Roundtree, also a Vigo County School Corp. attendance officer, said parents "must be a parent and not a friend."

Roundtree, 75, who is also a former elementary school principal who said he has retired "four times," said many youngsters stay away from school because "they don't have clothes; they don't have food; they don't have anything they can be proud of."

The Bayh College maintains a dropout prevention website at http://www.indianadropoutprevention.org. The site contains action plans, reports and links to assist communities in developing and implementing dropout prevention strategies.

One of the main goals of the website is to connect teams and individuals interested in dropout prevention across the state, Balch said. Anyone interested in the topic can join the site, which will be updated to include reports from the latest round of regional summits, she said.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/Drop-Out-Conference/093010SENSORdropoutconference/1028763591_6ija8-L.jpg - Christine McAfee (at podium), Monroe County juvenile probation supervisor, and Mark Wysocki, director of workforce initiatives with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, were among speakers at a regional dropout prevention conference Sept. 30 at Indiana State University. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Contact: Tonya Balch, assistant professor of counseling, Bayh College of Education, Indiana State University, 812-237-3459 or tonya.balch@indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu