Fla. students, leaders discuss dropout prevention


Published: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 6:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 6:57 p.m.

CLEARWATER, FLA. -- Mary Jane Henry and her husband are both college educated professionals. She worked for years as a case worker specializing in children with psychological disorders. He is a computer programmer.

Despite their backgrounds and attentiveness to their children, two of their boys dropped out of high school, she said.

"He was always there, interacting with teachers, interacting with principals," Henry recalls of her husband. "All of those things were in place and none of it motivated them to stay there."

On Monday, Henry and her sons attended the statewide Dropout Prevention Summit hosted by the Department of Education in Clearwater, Fla. For two days, parents, students, administrators and advocates will work together to brainstorm ideas to solve a dilemma families are facing nationwide: How to keep a child in school.

Across the state, 2.6 percent of high school students dropped out during the 2007-2008 school year, according the state Department of Education. In many places, that figure is significantly higher.

The impact is far-reaching: High school graduates in Florida are twice as likely to be employed than those who don't finish school. Dropouts will likely earn less than their peers and are more likely to be incarcerated or need public assistance, according to figures from the Department of Education presented at the conference.

At a time when Florida schools are facing the prospect of even deeper budget cuts, the need to combine resources with community leaders is paramount, several of the participants said.

"Students and their concerns don't go away because budgets decline," said Kimberly Davis, director of dropout prevention for the Education Department. "We have to still keep working and keep moving forward, but we've got to make sure that we're doing it efficiently."

Florida often ranks low in national rankings of high school graduation. The Quality Counts report released last week ranked the state 44th in the nation with a graduation rate of 60.8 percent.

State education officials say the graduation rate in the 2007-2008 school year was actually 75.4 percent. Among other things, Florida includes students who earn General Education Diplomas, which are not counted by many national rankings.

For three years, education leaders in Florida have been gathering for workshops on dropout prevention. But this is the first year that students, parents, and business and community leaders have come together to develop an action plan, Davis said.

Similar summits will take place around the nation this year under funding from America's Promise Alliance, Colin Powell's organization aimed at helping children succeed.

Among the speakers Monday were three young women who had all dropped out of high school but found their way back.

Marissa Miller, 18, said she missed school for 90 days her sophomore year at a high school in Boca Raton. She'd started dabbling in drugs and one day decided she didn't want to get on the school bus.

Eventually, a police officer showed up at her family's house and told her parents she'd been skipping school. She and her mother moved about four hours away to Florida's east coast, so Marissa could attend a new school in Flagler County while her father stayed behind to sell the family's home. Miller said she hated it at first, but a teacher in a program called Jobs for America's Graduates reached out to her.

"She's like my mom," Miller said. "She looks out for me, she does things for me, if I need her for anything, she'd be there."

Miller credits the class, which helps at-risk youth make the transition from school to work, with turning her around.

For Henry's sons, now 19 and 25, the classroom material just wasn't engaging enough, she said. One son would spend his day in the gym. The other attended classes, but didn't really apply himself.

She said both boys have well developed career interests one in catering, the other fashion. She brought them to the conference hoping they'd get motivated about school again.

"I can tell they're listening," she said.

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