Rock Hill summit looks at why kids drop out

They faced a wall of suggestions about how to reach students on the verge of quitting school.

The group of people -- educators, local politicians, church leaders, businessmen, retirees -- placed colored stickers next to ideas they believed might work.

The individuals, said to represent a cross section of the Rock Hill community, were part of the city's first Dropout Summit.

Rock Hill city and school officials organized the event to spotlight the issue and cull the community for input. School officials said they plan to review the ideas and use some of them.

The sheets of suggestions, taped to walls around the banquet room during the morning gathering last week, will form the basis of the city's approach to keeping students in school, summit leaders said.

Suggestions varied and included teaching students life skills, financial literacy lessons and moving parenting classes to community centers and work places.

For four hours, the 140 audience members heard speakers discuss reasons students leave school. They heard about existing programs and saw videos of former dropouts describing their experiences.

"It Takes a Community" was the title of keynote speaker John Hodge's presentation.

"We've all heard of the saying 'it takes a village,'" said Hodge, director of the Urban Learning and Leadership Center in Newport News, Va. "That implies a subset of the community can make a change. It can't, because communities are so connected."

The Rock Hill school district has hired Leadership Center staff as consultants in devising school improvement plans.

Hodge said the key to stemming the flow of dropouts is to address S.A.M.E., that is students' social, academic and moral environment.

"If you don't believe your kids can make it in Rock Hill, they won't," he told the crowd.

Rock Hill's gathering was timed to coincide with the state's first dropout summit held two days earlier.

The Columbia meeting, attended by some 800 people, marked the launch of the statewide initiative "Graduation Matters." The effort is sponsored by America's Promise Alliance, a child advocacy group started by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. The group aims to support 100 summits in all 50 states by 2010.

In a recent report, the Alliance found that roughly a third of American high school students, or about 1.1 million people, quit school before graduating.

In South Carolina, the Department of Education estimates the number to be about 8,100 students.

In the 2006-2007 school year, Rock Hill schools lost 276 students, or 5.5 percent, according to district figures. School officials expect the number to be lower for 2007-2008, about 220 students, or 4.3 percent.

Gloria Green, a retired librarian who attended the summit with her husband, said a lot of what she heard sounded familiar.

"We know the problems," she said afterward. "What I went to the meeting looking for was solutions. And I didn't get that."

Also, Green said, the district discussed only its overall dropout rate. No one mentioned rates for gender, ethnic and socioeconomic student groups.

"I was disappointed they didn't touch on it," she said.

School officials promised this meeting was different than previous discussions about dropouts.

"This is a call to action," Rock Hill schools associate superintendent of planning Luanne Kokolis told the crowd. "We're about finding strategies to stop the dropouts in Rock Hill, South Carolina."

The district plans to have a committee review Thursday's suggestions in early January, said Sheila Huckabee, executive director of secondary education.

The summit is a great start, said Green, who plans to volunteer as a meeting planner and student mentor.

"I am happy they held it," she said. "We don't need any more brainstorming. We need solutions."

Main reasons

Rock Hill schools community services coordinator Serena Williams said interviews with students who have quit school indicated four main rea-sons they did so:

1. Attendance issues, missing too many days.

2. Falling behind on work and unable to keep up.

3. Pregnancy.

4. Frequent movers.