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Mississippi graduation rates
Aggie, the recently revamped Coahoma Agricultural High School, has a long history stretching back to 1924. Credit: Sharon Lerner

Coahoma County, Miss. — A few months back, DeAngelo Bryant, a 19-year-old senior at Coahoma Agricultural High School, was in danger of not graduating. He had failed the state subject area test in U.S. History, required for graduation. And he wasn’t entirely clear on the point of getting a diploma. Most of the people he grew up with in Jonestown, a small outpost outside Clarksdale, don’t have high school degrees. Even the ones with diplomas usually can’t find good jobs.

But a series of events recently changed Bryant’s outlook.

One afternoon during football practice this fall, he noticed some men working near the field. They were welding, a teammate told him. Bryant watched the men at work and was intrigued. A few weeks later he told Angela Jones, an administrator at the high school, that he wanted to become a welder.

Jones recognized Bryant’s interest as an opportunity to explain what can be a foreign concept in this poor region with scant job opportunities: School can actually lead to well-paying work. “I told him it’s a very lucrative field,” says Jones, who showed Bryant a path that began with graduating from high school and ended with a stable career in welding. “I told him to get his certificate so he could become a journeyman and move on and make the top dollar with the union,” she says. Bryant, who is already a father and has seen his parents struggle to support 10 children, took note — especially when Jones explained that the certificate could help him land a job that pays $25 an hour.

Mississippi graduation rates
DeAngelo Bryant, 19, plans to begin welding classes at Coahoma County Community College this summer. Credit: Sharon Lerner

Jones also made sure that Bryant had multiple opportunities to score well on his ACT test, which, due to recent changes in graduation requirements, improved his chances of getting a diploma.

The percentage of students who graduate from Mississippi within four years — 74.5 percent for the 2013-2014 school year according to statistics from the Department of Education — isn’t too far below the national rate of 81 percent. (The national number is for the 2012-13 school year.) But in some poorer districts, those numbers are far lower. Before the curriculum was revamped, the graduation rate at Coahoma Agricultural High School, or Aggie as locals know it, had dropped as low as 46 percent. And about three miles down the road from Aggie, the Coahoma County School district has a four-year graduation rate of 52 percent — up from just 45 percent the year before, according to state data.

Black male dropouts born in 1970 had an almost 70 percent chance of winding up in prison by their mid-thirties — a rate that’s three times that of white dropouts. By the time they were 30, black dropouts were more likely to be in prison than to be employed.

Fueled in part by the legislature’s goal to increase the state-wide graduation rate to 85 percent by the 2018-2019 school year, Mississippi has been working hard to keep students in school. In 2006, the state created an office of dropout prevention. And two years ago, the legislature required the 109 districts that had graduation rates below 80 percent to come up with a plan for restructuring their dropout prevention effort. Since then, districts have responded with everything from training to help teachers engage with disaffected students to updated curricula designed for today’s job market.

Although the dropout rate is a state-wide issue, the problem is particularly acute in Mississippi’s poorest areas, including the Delta, where graduation rates sometimes dip below 50 percent and educators face huge barriers — among them an entrenched mindset that school simply doesn’t matter.

Related: Pipeline to prison: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American schoolchildren

The prospects are grim for students who don’t make it to graduation. Some 68 percent of state inmates are high school dropouts, according to a 2003 nationwide estimate. Dropping out costs students an additional $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes when compared to high school graduates, according to 2008 estimates from the Alliance for Excellent Education. In Mississippi, dropping out further narrows already-slim employment options. The consequences of not graduating are particularly harsh for black males. According to a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution, black male dropouts born in 1970 had an almost 70 percent chance of winding up in prison by their mid-thirties — a rate that’s three times that of white dropouts. By the time they were 30, black dropouts were more likely to be in prison than to be employed.

Mississippi graduation rates
Students participate in a medical careers class at Gulfport High School; the class is paid for, in part, by local hospitals. Credit: Sharon Lerner

Two years ago, Aggie was on the brink of failure. The school, one of only two agricultural high schools remaining in the state, had begun to seem like a holdover from another era. The legislature planned to close it last July and even the district’s superintendent, Valmadge Towner, understood why. “We just knew that the kids were not interested in school,” says Towner, who is also the president of Coahoma Community College, which shares a campus with the high school. “We had low community engagement, low staff engagement.”

So Towner helped design a program that would make school more relevant to students in this poor, rural area. Set amidst vast fields, Aggie would return to its roots and teach about agriculture, which had long since faded from its curriculum. But this time, with classes such as agribusiness and agri-mechanics, students would be prepared for work in 21st century agriculture. The idea was to make schoolwork more hands-on, and more fun, while preparing students for a range of jobs.

Thus, on a recent Thursday, students in a food science class taught by local chef Lee Craven were painting a banner they would hang at a local health fair behind food they had prepared. Students in the agri-science class learned about the economics of farming and planted a garden this year; and Craven’s students recently used the turnips and other veggies to prepare a restaurant-worthy meal. Through its partnership with the community college, Aggie students can take other career-oriented courses, such as auto mechanics, medical billing and welding.

Related: Community colleges raise alarm on graduation pledge

The Coahoma County School district has a four-year graduation rate of 52 percent — up from just 45 percent the year before, the national average is 81%.

The reinvention of Aggie is just one of the efforts the Department of Education is undertaking to boost graduation rates. The task is a daunting one, in part because, as elsewhere in Mississippi, budget woes constrain efforts. Last year the legislature provided the Office of Dropout Prevention only $800,000 to pay for programs that keep kids in school — programs that can be very expensive.

Many districts have struck up arrangements with local businesses to pay for some programs. At the comparatively wealthy Gulfport High, for instance, NASA helps pay for a state-of-the art robotics lab where, on a recent Monday afternoon, members of the robotics team were excitedly inspecting bi-directional wheels for their new robot. And local hospitals team up with the school for a program in medical careers. In several coastal communities, including Pascagoula and Ocean Springs, Chevron funds Project Lead the Way, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics program that helps boost math test scores and post-high school outcomes.

Unfortunately, poorer regions — which tend to have both higher drop-out rates and less local industry — often have difficulty finding private money to support programs that help engage and retain students. Jean Massey, associate state superintendent at the Mississippi Department of Education, says the private funding in wealthier areas allows the state to allocate more of its public dollars to poorer regions. “We may never get the Chevron that the coast has in the Delta,” says Massey. “But if Chevron can support the coast, then we have additional dollars to support the Delta.”

Related: Mississippi town still fighting desegregation

“People are so far out, if it’s poor weather or bad weather, they don’t want to put their children on buses.”

The scarcity of resources, including the lack of potential corporate sponsors, is just one reason it’s harder to prevent students from dropping out in less densely populated areas. “A compounded set of circumstances make it very difficult to do dropout prevention” in rural areas, says Sandy Addis, interim director of the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network and a participant in a U.S. Department of Education project on dropout prevention in rural states, including Mississippi. Finding support for programs to help keep kids in school is “very different if I have a chamber of commerce …two blocks down,” he said.

 Mississippi graduation rates
Shanika Lewis, a student in Clarksdale’s Ombudsman program, dropped out of school in seventh grade. Credit: Sharon Lerner

National research shows that risk factors for dropping out include living in areas in which unemployment is high and the percentage of adults who hold high school diplomas is low, and living in low-income, single-parent households. All are common situations in Mississippi — and throughout the country. Students in rural areas struggle with additional burdens, including attendance. “People are so far out, if it’s poor weather or bad weather, they don’t want to put their children on buses,” explains Debbie Harrell, superintendent in George County, a rural district in the Southeastern part of the state.

A combination of these issues led Shanika Lewis of Clarksdale to drop out. “It’s because my household is all…” Lewis said, her voice trailing off when she tried to explain why she left school in the seventh grade. After a pause, the former dropout, now 19, settled on the phrase “just not right.” Lewis’ uneven school attendance ended altogether after her grandmother, who had been caring for Lewis’ younger siblings, had a stroke. While Lewis’ mother worked, the 12-year-old stayed home to care for her partially paralyzed grandmother and six younger siblings for the better part of two years.

Failure on one of four state tests keeps 13% of Mississippi’s seniors from graduating.

Though she never returned to traditional school, Lewis is now enrolled in Ombudsman, an alternative program offered through the Clarksdale district. Seated in a large room alongside other former dropouts, Lewis has her own laptop and individualized lesson plan, which allow her to work at her own pace and help ease any embarrassment she might feel about being an older student. While she continues to shoulder much of the responsibility for caring for her grandmother and still struggles with absenteeism, Lewis is on track to earn a degree through the program. If she graduates, Lewis’ success will not impact her district’s graduation rate: she will be counted as a “completer” by the Department of Education, a special category for students who are neither traditional graduates, nor dropouts.

As in other districts, a considerable number of Clarksdale seniors dropped out because they repeatedly failed state subject area tests that, until recently, were a hard-and-fast graduation requirement. “They try and try and eventually they give up,” says Dennis Dupree, the district superintendent. Dupree estimates about 35 students this year may not get their diplomas because of the tests. Statewide, 3,856 of 28,797 seniors — about 13 percent — are at risk of not graduating because they failed at least one of four tests, according to Department of Education data.

But recent changes in graduation requirements are expected to reduce the number of students who don’t graduate because of the state tests. In late March, the Department of Education announced it would no longer require seniors to pass all four subject area tests in order to graduate. Starting next school year, a combined minimum test score will be sufficient, even if students fail one or more of the individual tests. And by the following school year — 2016-2017 — scores on standardized tests in algebra, biology, English and U.S. history will constitute only one quarter of a student’s final grade.

Mississippi graduation rates
Superintendent Dennis Dupree in front of the building that houses Clarksdale’s Ombudsman program Credit: Sharon Lerner

This year, for the first time, students who don’t pass the subject area tests may be allowed to graduate based on a combination of their overall course grades in these subjects with their test scores. In Coahoma County, this means 10 of about 60 seniors who were at risk of failure may graduate, according to district superintendent Pauline Rhodes. Last year, the decision to allow ACT scores to be factored into graduation requirements, which paved the way for Aggie’s DeAngelo Bryant to get his diploma, helped boost Coahoma County’s graduation rate from 45 to 51 percent.

Between the district’s own efforts — which include putting a school counselor in charge of dropout prevention — and the changes in graduation requirements, Rhodes is hopeful Coahoma County’s graduation rate for this school year may climb as high as 61 percent.

Related: In dying Delta town, teacher turnover leaves last schoolhouse bereft

While the new testing policy is designed to help seniors, some districts focus on reaching children at risk of dropping out much earlier. Such students can be reliably identified, based on academic performance, as early as eighth grade. According to 2006 research on dropout trends in Philadelphia by Robert Balfanz, a researcher based at Johns Hopkins University, more than three-quarters of eighth graders who either fail math or English or miss more than five weeks of school go on to drop out.

“We have parents who don’t have the capacity to help the kids.”

The Star Academy, a program offered in George County and Lynchburg, just south of Memphis, is designed to catch such lagging students. This school year, Star, which is run by the for-profit company, Pitsco, enrolled 150 students entering eighth grade who had been held back at least once and gave them the opportunity to do the condensed coursework of eighth and ninth grades in a single year. So far, most Star students in both districts re expected to enter their traditional high schools as tenth graders. In the coming school year, two additional districts will likely create Star academies.

But, to make a substantial increase in the graduation rate, change will have to start earlier than eighth grade, says the Department of Education’s Massey. “They need to start in elementary school getting kids thinking about what they want to do and why they should stay in school,” she said. “It’s not just learning about careers, it’s learning why they’re necessary. It’s, ‘If my buddies are dropping out of school, how do I stay on track?’”

If Massey’s prescribed solution amounts to cultural change, that fits with experts’ understanding that in order to get at the roots of the dropout problem change must extend far beyond schools. About two-thirds of the risk factors for dropping out of high school are related to individual students, their families and their communities, according to Addis of the National Dropout Prevention Center and Network. “The school systems can’t do this alone,” he said.

Some Mississippi schools are attempting to address the more nebulous social issues that underlie school failure. Capturing Kids’ Hearts, for instance, a training program that includes an intense three-day workshop for school staff, is designed to strengthen the student/teacher bond, a connection that has been shown to help keep students in school. The program, offered by the for-profit group Flippen Education, encourages staff to engage students through such basic social niceties as eye contact, handshakes, and pre-class fist bumps.

Mississippi graduation rates
“We have parents who don’t have the capacity to help the kids,” says Devona Jones, above, dropout prevention coordinator for the Coahoma County School District. Credit: Sharon Lerner

“It’s connected teachers to kids in a more civilized, caring, empathetic way,” Perry Swindall says of the program. Swindall, who teaches physical education and coaches at Oxford Middle School, feels the more respectful relationships the program has fostered benefit students and teachers alike. “That teacher has a harder time raising her voice or losing her temper with someone that there’s a connection to,” says Swindall. “And students have a harder time misbehaving when there’s a personal connection with that teacher.”

Oxford, a university town with a higher-than-average graduation rate of 88 percent, is one of the luckier districts when it comes to a critical resource for dropout prevention: role models — lots of parents who not only graduated high school, but went on to college and a career. In many parts of the state, adults who can demonstrate and speak firsthand to the benefits of a high school diploma are in short supply. In Coahoma County, for instance, where per capita income is less than $16,000 a year, many students who drop out have parents who didn’t graduate — and thus haven’t experienced the value of education.

“We don’t turn our backs because you’re 19 or 20 years old … I’ll go to their house and say, ‘If you’re not coming back to school, enroll in GED.’”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Devona Jones, dropout prevention coordinator for the Coahoma County school district. “We have parents who don’t have the capacity to help the kids. They don’t see the necessity of going.”

A few miles away in Clarksdale, school resource officer Earnest Moore sees such families every day. Moore, one of five school officers employed by the district, visits the homes of students who are absent for more than five days without an explanation. In his daily rounds, he has heard just about every excuse for not making it to school, from parents not having a babysitter (and thus calling an older sibling into service) to oversleeping.

Moore reminds parents that the failure to send their children to school could — at least technically — result in the suspension of their public benefits. A few years back, authorities here withheld checks from parents whose children were truant, and Clarksdale’s school district office was soon “flooded” with parents who wanted to re-enroll children who had dropped out, according to Superintendent Dupree.

But that provision of the law is no longer enforced. So Moore goes to lengths to help keep kids in school, supplying rides to school, alarm clocks, clean clothes and plenty of encouragement — even to those who can no longer attend traditional high school. “We don’t turn our backs because you’re 19 or 20 years old,” says Moore. “I’ll go to their house and say, ‘If you’re not coming back to school, enroll in GED.’” The important thing, he says, is not to give up.

Back at Aggie, DeAngelo Bryant is seeing his persistence pay off. Bryant recently scored a 30 on the ACT reading test, which, through the state’s recently amended requirements, secured his graduation. Now, he says, he’s excited not just “to walk,” but to start preparing for his career. He’ll begin welding classes at Coahoma Community College this summer.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

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