Dropout crisis in S.C. under attack

Each school year, more than 8,000 S.C. students, nearly 4 percent of the high school population, drop out, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Statistically, these students are more likely to earn smaller paychecks for the rest of their lives than their graduating classmates, bear children while they're still teens and end up behind bars.

Today, hundreds of educators, business leaders and community members will gather in Columbia to explore ways to halt the dropout crisis and learn about dropout prevention programs that are getting results.

It's part of the second dropout prevention summit, sponsored by the state Department of Education, AT&T and others.

"The initial summit (in December 2008) was to bring awareness and to begin helping schools address their dropout problems," said John Lane, the Department of Education's coordinator for at-risk initiatives. "During this summit, we're determining how successful their solution strategies are and whether their plans need to be tweaked or revisited."

Educators say South Carolina is already making significant gains in lowering its dropout rate. Consider:

- Every S.C. high school now has a dropout prevention program, helping keep students in school and on track to earn a diploma. That wasn't the case just a couple of years ago, Lane said.

- The Department of Education now requires schools to identify and track "over-age" eighth-through-12th-graders in hopes of keeping them in school.

Statistically, these students, who are two or more grades behind in school, are most at risk of dropping out.

Schools and the department keep tabs on these students, about 32,000 last school year, in terms of academic progress, attendance, disciplinary action and more. The data, paired with new software, is being used to alert school officials when students need extra help to prevent them from dropping out.

The state also is eagerly waiting to see whether the 2005 Education and Economic Development Act will pay off.

The landmark legislation requires all of the state's high schoolers to pick a major and take course work to prepare them for their future careers. In the next couple of years, the first S.C. students will graduate since the EEDA was implemented.

But new laws and software aren't enough.

If the dropout crisis is to be solved, it'll take individuals stepping up, said Jim Mullis, director of a Pickens County alternative center that houses one of the state's top dropout prevention programs.

At Mullis' Star Academy, teachers offer one-on-one attention to "over-age" eighth-graders. Computer programs and other interactive lessons keep students from getting bored.

In the span of one school year, academy students do two years worth of schoolwork and leave the academy ready to enter ninth grade.

The academy boasts a 75 percent success rate in preparing students for high school. But more needs to be done, Mullis said.

"(The dropout problem)is not a school problem. It's a community problem. For some of these kids, they have parents who, for whatever reason, can't or won't get involved," he said. "So we need to get other people involved. We need volunteers from the community. We need mentors and people who want to make a difference. That's where it's got to start."