Keeping Kids In School | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Keeping Kids In School

Photo by Amile Wilson

Inside the Jackson Medical Mall's Thad Cochran Center, a group of students and teachers hover around a circular table. As new students walk into the New Focus for Youth Intervention program, they pull up chairs and begin to fill the outer rim of the table.

Jackson Public Schools Board President Kisiah Nolan sits at the center of the circle. All five students look at her, anticipating the next question in a vocabulary game.

"What is the city named for a girl named Eda who likes to laugh?" she asks.

The students, puzzled, look at each other for an answer.

"Grenada," another teacher injects.

Nolan shoots her a quizzical look. "They are smart enough to figure this out on their own; don't tell them," she says, smiling.

New Focus Program Director Dr. Ollye Shirley, wife of Medical Mall board chairman Dr. Aaron Shirley, walks around the circle, offering encouragement and occasional jokes to the students.

Earlier that day, two young girls had walked in—looking unsure if they were in the right place. They quickly took their seats, without making eye contact, but now are warming up to the other group members.

Shirley is confident the two 14-year-old girls, who are both mothers, will succeed and stay in school—as long as they keep showing up to the program.

Going Beyond the Basics
New Focus started in September 2009 with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department. The program offers a holistic approach to dropout prevention for Brinkley Middle School and Lanier High School students. In June, the program received an additional boost from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with another $220,000 grant to help pregnant and teen mothers at risk for dropping out of school. The girls can bring their babies to the mall's childcare center next door, while they participate in the program and they will also learn parenting skills. All the students in the program attend a financial literacy workshop once a week at the Perico Institute for Youth Development and Entrepreneurship, also located inside the Medical Mall.

Ollye Shirley started the program to decrease the Jackson Public Schools dropout rate of 24.3, improve students' grades and make college part of their plans. While she is reluctant to give her age, Shirley has devoted her entire life to education. She was a member of the JPS school board from 1978 to 1993 and board president from 1988 to 1993. She also spent 25 years working for the Children's Television Workshop, the television company that produces programs like Sesame Street.

Shirley recruited her daughter, Erin Shirley, as the program's assistant director and hired four retired teachers, a counselor and a parent educator to tutor the students.

Erin Shirley has a background in electrical engineering and worked in the automotive industry for 14 years. She came on board at New Focus recently after Delphi, the plant where she worked closed.

Ollye Shirley says that changing a student's attitude toward learning is the program's first priority. "We had horrible attitudes at first," she recalls.

Shirley points to Charles, a 17-year-old 9th-grader from Lanier High School. Charles (not his real name), came to the program six months ago, after he was placed under house arrest for breaking and entering.

At first, Charles was angry and kept to himself, Shirley says. She pulls out a roll of gray duct tape from her desk.

"I had to duct tape his pants," she says. "I said, ‘You need to pull those pants up.' Now we don't have to do that anymore. Now he gives hugs."

Charles smiles as Shirley waves the duct tape at him.

"We don't need to use that," he says, placing his hands in the air to demonstrate his pants can stay up on their own.

Charles says he wants to graduate from high school and then major in engineering at Jackson State University.

Virgie Peterson, a rising seventh-grader at Brinkley, has made the most progress in the program. Peterson, who calls Ollye Shirley "grandmother" and Erin Shirley "godmother," has been in the program since its inception.

Peterson's home life was unstable, and her grades began to slip at school. She says she didn't feel comfortable asking for help until she came to the program.

"When my principal introduced me to the teachers at the program, I realized I just needed some attention and started feeling comfortable. I really caught on to it," she says.

Peterson ended the school year as a straight-A student.

Since New Focus started, 85 percent of the students' grades have improved. The program began with about 40 students, and currently about 15 show up on a regular basis.

Ollye Shirley says the number of students participating decreases in the summers because transportation is a problem. During the school year, JPS buses take the students to New Focus after school and then take them home. With 300,600 students in the district, Shirley knows many more students need to be reached.

A basic tutoring program is not enough to keep kids in school. Shirley says that one of the biggest challenges to dropout prevention is making sure students have their needs met so they can focus on learning. Shirley and the other teachers see themselves as the student's extended family. When needed, the teachers have bought school uniforms, provided transportation so that the students can make it to the program and helped them with medical needs.

"We've even had to help pay for a water bill," Shirley says. "We try not to do that, but they didn't have water in the house, and I think they had seven people in that house. Just imagine being in a house with that many people and not having water."

Ollye Shirley admits that parents don't always set a good example for their children, which is why the program also conducts workshops with the parents to change their attitudes and values.

"These girls act like its normal to have babies at 14, we even have a 13-year-old with a baby. No one says anything about it. In the neighborhood, that's what they do," she says.

Evaluating the Numbers
Earlier this month, the Mississippi Department of Education released dropout and graduation rates for the class of 2009. The dropout numbers slightly increased from the previous year from 16 percent to 16. 7 percent. JPS had much more substantial increase from 17.8 percent to 24.3 percent. But looking at the numbers on a year-to-year basis isn't necessarily an indicator of success or failure.

The dropout rate for the state and JPS has fluctuated over the past few years. In 2006, the district reported a rate of 26.8 percent, which significantly decreased to 15.7 percent in 2007. The state's dropout rate also decreased from 17.6 percent in 2006 to 15.9 percent in 2007.

After MDE released the numbers, Mississippi House of Representatives Education Committee Chairman Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, cautioned against making a snap judgment.

"I'm a little disappointed but not surprised at all, because those numbers are going to fluctuate from year to year just like ACT scores do and employment rates," Brown said July 9. "The question is: Is this trend going to be in the right direction over the long term?"

Prior to 2005, the state calculated the graduation and dropout rates based on the number of students who started and finished their senior year.

In 2005, the National Governors Association Task Force on High School Graduate Rate Data determined that districts should use a four-year "cohort" graduation rate. Cohort data track students from their freshman year of high school until expected graduation. The dropout numbers MDE released reflects the number of students who have dropped out of JPS since their freshman year.

"This has given Mississippi a much more accurate rate of what the (graduation) rate is," says Rachel Hicks, executive director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit education advocacy nonprofit. "If a student drops out, they are much more likely to do it before 12th grade."

State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham confirmed this approach July 23, in a statement about MDE's process of calculating graduation and dropout rates.

He pointed to the fact that in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education issued its own guidelines for counting dropout rates, which differed slightly from the NGA guidelines.

Unlike the NGA guidelines, the 2008 federal guidelines gave less time for special- education students to graduate and dubbed students dropouts if they received a diploma through a GED program outside
their district.

JPS Director of Accountability and Research Dr. Willie Johnson, who retired this year after 19 years in the district, said during the 2005/2006 school year, a significant number of freshmen dropped out of school.

"We started to build initiatives for dropout prevention each year after 2006, and we lowered the number of students that we were losing," he says. "But we were never able to recover the students we lost."

The actual number of dropouts has decreased district-wide, but because the recent data reflects dropouts over a four-year period, those numbers will not be reflected for a few years. For instance, Johnson said 448 students dropped out in 2006; 312 dropped out in 2007; 298 dropped out in 2008; and 273 dropped out in 2009.

In 2007, MDE started "On the Bus," a dropout-prevention campaign to carry out the state's goal of reducing the dropout rate by 50 percent by the 2011/2012 school year and bringing the state's dropout rate down to 13 percent by 2013.

In addition to public-service announcements and partnering with businesses, the campaign required school districts to draft their own dropout-prevention plans. Each district posted its plan on the MDE website, but it is up to each district to implement the plan and update it. Smith said districts could lose accreditation if they don't follow through on their plan.

"The penalty (for districts) is that the dropout rate will continue to climb if we don't do something to head it off—that's the most severe penalty," Pete Smith, MDE director of communications, told the Jackson Free Press.

In 2007, under then-JPS Superintendent Earl Watkins, the district formed a dropout-prevention task force comprised of community members, the mayor's office, nonprofits and the governor's office.

After assessing the district and the reasons students dropped out, the task force made several recommendations of how to curb the district's dropout rate.

At the time, the district reported that 500 students were two or more grades behind by the 9th grade, while 7,653 students had 12 or more unexcused absences. Johnson said the district now has 676 students who are two or more grades behind by the 9th grade.

The district's dropout plan, which has since been updated for 2009 to 2013, is a detailed 106-page plan full of target groups, proposed initiatives and current programs aimed at reducing the district's dropout rate.

Nancy Sylvester, who recently retired as the district's director of student support services, wrote the plan, which she presented at a national dropout prevention conference in 2008 and frequently traveled to school districts all over the country using her plan as a model for dropout prevention.

In conducting the assessment, the task force surveyed parents, students and teachers, and found that the majority of parents had little involvement in their child's education and students with mental health problems lacked services and support.

Many of the proposed initiatives have steep price tags, such as spending $944,000 to decrease the counselor-to-pupil ratio by hiring more counselors. But others have no associated cost, such as a faculty mentorships and recognition for students with high attendance.

Sylvester says the plan just has to be implemented to be successful.

"We know we have a real dilemma, and we know there are some things that need to be done differently," Sylvester says.

JPS Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Dr. Pamela Felder says the district administration is reviewing its dropout-prevention plan to see which programs are feasible and to determine what the district already has in place. After the administration reviews the plan, she said the school board will look and the review and take action.

Felder noted that since the plan's inception, the district has gone from six social workers to 28. The district is also exploring the possibility of hiring a graduation coach to work with students. Felder says the position is likely, despite a tough budget yet.

"That is going to be a strong possibility, even if it takes us restructuring some current positions to make sure that particular position is prioritized," Felder says.

The district has received several grants to install a childcare center at Wingfield High School and provide funding for resource officers at middle schools, who will conduct workshops with students on safety and mentor students.

Starting Early and Often
Operation Shoestring on Bailey Avenue sits in the midst of several dilapidated buildings. The nonprofit, which is usually buzzing with children from the nearby neighborhoods, is empty as the organization gets ready for the upcoming school year.

Executive Director Robert Langford and Deputy Director Dr. Martha Alexander know identifying at-risk students early is an important part of increasing the number of high- school graduates in the city.

"The typical JPS dropout, as we understand it, is a second semester freshman, African American male who has been retained twice," Langford says.

Four years ago, Operation Shoestring collaborated with the United Way of the Capital Area to form a pilot program called Stamp Out Drop Out. The program focused on 50 students in pre-k, elementary and middle schools and on programs geared to address their academic and family needs.

"A lot of the challenges were much bigger than one organization or a handful of organizations could provide," Langford says of what Operations Shoestring discovered through the pilot program. "It's important to create an environment that focuses on nurturing that child and his or her family and promotes and demands excellence."

Langford realized the most effective way to ensure students success was for Operation Shoestring to create "wrap-around services" by collaborating with other community organizations and businesses. Operation Shoestring now offers more comprehensive services such as addressing individual family needs, health-care service referrals, as well as academic and art programs for children. During the summer, Operation Shoestring partners with Galloway and Brown Elementary schools, and Lanier High School to host academic programs. Langford says he firmly believes that the success of Jackson's rebirth will depend heavily on an education work force.

Operation Shoestring also focuses on young boys, because they are the most at-risk for dropping out of school. For 2009, the male dropout rate for JPS was 28.7 percent, compared to females who had a rate of 19.9 percent. Boys who lack an adult male role model are at risk for dropping out, Alexander says.

"If males tend to be retained, if they have a low reading level by the third grade, and have more difficulty getting past some of their socialization issues and, consequently, don't perform academically, they'll just say ‘forget it' and walk away from it," Alexander says.

Shawna Davie, dropout prevention coordinator at the United Way in Jackson, says the state's subject-area test scores are a good indicator if a student is at-risk for failing. Subject-area tests have become more rigorous within the last two years, and students must pass all state tests to graduate once they are in high school, she says.

"Reviewing Mississippi curriculum test scores and third-grade reading skills can help us identify students much earlier and make sure they are on track early on until they graduate high school," Davie says. United Way is creating community partnerships for dropout prevention, hosting preparation workshops for subject-area tests, hosting focus groups with parents and teachers, and planning two conferences for the winter that will bring together the business community and youth.

Hicks also points to early intervention as a key component of improving the state's dropout rate.

"I feel like we are playing catch up a lot in our high schools," she says.

"We want to keep these kids from dropping out, but by the time we start to look at them, they are a 10th- grader who is at a sixth-grade reading level. They are already far along the path of dropping out, and we are just coming to the party a little too late."

Eyes on the Future
At the Jackson Medical Mall, students settle into their chairs at the PRIYDE Inc. for their financial literacy workshop. A drawing of a tree with the title "Family Assets" hangs on the wall. The current exercise is meant to get the middle schoolers thinking about the assets they currently have and what they want to leave for their family in the future.

AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Marqueus Draper has each student stand up and introduce themselves.

A young girl stands up and gets a sudden case of shyness. She turns and faces the wall to avoid looking at her peers and teachers.

"Turn around, you aren't shy," Draper coaxes. "Make eye contact … when you do an interview, you have to talk to your future employer and look at them eye-to-eye."

Eventually, she comes around.

"My name is Tamara Purnell," she says. "I go to Callaway High School. I have a baby named Kevin."

"See that wasn't so hard, now was it?" Draper asks.

The goal of the financial workshop is to engage students in fun activities that strengthen their math skills. Financial literacy is important, he says, because it gives students confidence to enter the work force and potential to become an entrepreneur.

Back in the New Focus learning lab, students get ready to leave for the day. Nolan, who spent 38 years working with JPS, first as an elementary school teacher, then as a principal and later as the district's assistant superintendent for elementary schools, retired in 2001. She says that creating new horizons and possibilities for students is a key component of the program. Now many of the program attendees talk about going to college and the future careers they want to pursue.

"We have children that are making honor roll for the first time. That's a testament to me," she says. "They are really like our children."

Nolan says the school board hasn't specifically addressed the district's dropout prevention plan yet, but board members held a retreat in June and discussed goals for the district to improve its graduation rate. She says she wants to see better enforcement of the state's compulsory school attendance law that mandates that school-aged child attend school unless they have an excused absence. Parents who do not comply can face charges of child neglect and face time in prison or pay fines.

"We really need some teeth into (the law), and we need real attendance officers on the streets," she says. "You can go out anytime of day and see students on the streets. … It needs to be something that isn't just on paper."

Nolan says that getting students to show up and holding parents accountable are the first steps to shape student's minds and encourage them to stay in school.

"Once your mind is stretched, it never returns to the same dimension," she says. "They are wanting bigger and better things."

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