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School's Out -- For Good, for Too Many Mississippi Students

New America Media, Commentary, Leroy Johnson Posted: Jun 23, 2008

Editor's Note: Mississippi is taking steps to improve its dismal graduation rates, which is crucial for the success of its families writes Leroy Johnson. Johnson is the executive director of Southern Echo, a statewide leadership education, training and development organization based in Jackson. He moderated a town hall meeting in Greenville in May, part of the national Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.
Leroy JohnsonLeroy Johnson
GREENVILLE, Miss. -- As a parent, I've experienced the frustration of trying to get my children prepared for college. My son had no certified science or math teachers in high school. We sent him to a math summer camp and got him tutoring, and now he's doing fine in college. But why did I have to pay out of pocket for educational services I had already paid for with my taxes?

Some may complain that Mississippi can't afford to spend more on quality education. But in fact, we can't afford not to. Investment in quality education will come back to the state many-fold in taxes paid by productive workers and in fewer people incarcerated.

More and more jobs require not just a high school but a college degree. Over the last year, the number of manufacturing jobs in Mississippi fell by almost 4 percent, while the number of professional and business service jobs grew. We need to educate our young people for the jobs of the future. Yet two-thirds of Mississippi high school graduates are not ready for college. Nationally, over one third of eighth graders take algebra; but in Mississippi the number is just one in 20.

Despite our state's low taxes and business costs, Forbes Magazine's 2007 report on best states for business ranked Mississippi 43 out of 50, in large part due to our low educational attainment. The Chamber of Commerce ran a full-page ad in support of funding quality education earlier this year -- because they know that a poorly trained workforce makes Mississippi less attractive to investment capital.

Our high school graduates aren't ready for college, and a disturbing number of students don't graduate at all. The national diplomas count report, released by Education Week earlier this month, once again put Mississippi in the bottom 10 states in 2005, with only 62 percent of high school freshmen eventually getting a diploma, compared to 70 percent nationally.

The Mississippi Board of Education, which uses a different method of calculation, reported a 74 percent graduation rate in 2007, up from 71 percent in 2006 -- but that still leaves one in four students dropping out. More than half of African-American boys don't graduate.

At the Mississippi Rising Conference in Biloxi earlier this month, state educators reaffirmed the Board of Educations five strategies to boost these dismal graduation rates. One of these strategies is to "increase the quantity and quality of teachers," recognizing that large classes and poor teaching lead some students to drop out. Almost one third of Mississippi's secondary school classes are taught by teachers who didn't major or minor in the field they are teaching. This strategy will require a partnership among the state department of education, the universities, the state legislature, and the community to attract and retain quality teachers.

Many students are "push-outs" more than drop-outs. Suspensions and expulsions for dress code violations, arguments, and other non-violent offenses derail students who could have been, and should have been, kept in school.

For low-income and other at-risk students, the state spends about $5,000 less per student per year than the amount recommended by Augenblick and Associates, the nationally-recognized education consulting firm employed by the state legislature to determine the necessary costs.

Thanks to the new office of drop-out prevention, every school district is now required to have a drop-out prevention plan, and the first plans were just approved this spring. Next year will be the first year they go into operation.

Community involvement is the key to making sure the drop-out prevention plans are implemented. Southern Echo helped organize the town hall meeting held in Greenville in May, where more than 400 people discussed education problems. We supported the well-attended "Get on the Bus" teen and adult summits sponsored by the board of education. This groundswell of public involvement is a positive sign. School districts will succeed only if they sit down with community organizations, parents and students, listen to our experiences, and collaborate on solutions.

My hope is that when the students promoted into eighth grade this month turn 18 in 2013, so many of them graduate that Mississippi sets a new national record for most-improved high-school education.

Related Articles:

A Beacon Shines from Mississippis Delta (Gallery)

Who Asked Us? A Young Womans Struggle to Succeed in Community College

A Beacon Shines from Mississippis Delta

Classmates, Teachers Rally to Stop Students Deportation

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