Preventing dropouts key in econ. develop.

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Members of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce gota lesson in improving economic development through the enhancementof local education Wednesday morning at the organization’squarterly membership breakfast at Western Sizzlin’.

Mississippi Department of Education Director of DropoutPrevention Dr. Sheril Smith spoke to chamber members about theimportance of increasing graduation rates and decreasing the numberof students who drop out of school as it relates to the developmentof a trained workforce, perhaps the most vital factor considered byindustries seeking to locate in an area.

“In the industrial community, there’s an economic impact whenstudents drop out of school,” Smith said. “The state is losingmoney because students aren’t getting their diplomas. We hear fromindustries all the time that the number one thing they need is atrained workforce.”

According to department of education statistics shown by Smith,the estimated lifetime earnings in Mississippi lost by one class ofdropouts is estimated at $4 billion.

Likewise, the state economy would enjoy a $93 million savings indecreased crime prevention spending and increased earnings eachyear if the high school graduation rate for male students increasedby just 5 percent.

In order to move the state toward a lower dropout rate, thedepartment of education will require each school district toimplement dropout prevention plans this fall. But Smith said localorganizations like the chamber should also get involved in localschools to assist in any way possible.

“The easiest, cheapest, most effective thing someone can do toprevent a child from dropping out is to just get involved with astudent,” she said. “A committed core of people who say, ‘I will dowhatever it takes to keep this student from dropping out,’ is whatmakes a prevention program successful. Otherwise, it’s just fundingand numbers.”

Smith said Mississippi school districts are losing an average of2,000 students before they ever enter high school. In order toimprove this number, she said, communities must come together andidentify students who are at risk of dropping out.

Even though most of the state’s dropouts make their decision inmiddle school or early high school, Smith said dropout preventionmust begin much, much earlier – in kindergarten.

“Elementary school really sets the foundation for a student,”she said. “Not all students come in on a level playing field.Communities need to work with Head Start programs and day carecenters to make sure students have the knowledge they need to comeinto elementary school. If a student’s daycare is just a babysitter where they sit around and watch TV, that puts them at adisadvantage.”

Smith encouraged chamber officials to work with students at allstages in the educational system to keep school interesting.Further department of education statistics show that 47 percent ofall dropouts say uninteresting classes are the reason theyquit.

“As a community, we need to see where students get the senseearly on that school is not the right environment for them,” Smithsaid.

The primary method used locally to keep classrooms moreinteresting – and challenging – is the Mississippi Scholarsprogram. Mississippi Scholars Chairman Kenny Goza said more than$30,000 in scholarships was awarded through the program just thisyear, with approximately 50 presenters in the county.

“We’re working closely with our local school systems – they areof paramount importance to Mississippi’s future,” said chamberexecutive vice president Cliff Brumfield.

Brumfield said the state’s current dropout rate was “alarming,”and unless it was reversed would prohibit the state from puttingits best foot forward in the drive to recruit industry.

“In order to maintain higher-paying jobs and lure inhigher-paying industries, we must have the best-trained and finestquality workforce,” he said. “For that, we need the besteducational and leadership skills possible to compete in the globalmarket.”