Leaders Share Ideas at Graduate Kentucky Summit

Murray, KY – According to national statistics, high school dropouts earn 68-hundred dollars less annually than graduates. They are more likely to battle addiction, have a criminal record and suffer poor health, and more likely to consume social services. In Kentucky, the dropout rate in 2008 was 28-percent. Currently, the General Assembly is considering a bill to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18. The measure has gained support from a statewide initiative, Graduate Kentucky, which is spearheaded by First Lady Jane Beshear. To promote increased graduation rates, supporters are holding regional dropout prevention summits, and this week they brought the initiative to western Kentucky.

Murray State University Senior and Sociology major Ashley Rawlings knows first-hand that a support network is key in education.

"They've kind of been there, motivating me, to continue on, even though I'm still struggling, it's like you can do this.'"

The they' she's talking about are the teachers who helped her when she considered dropping out of college. Through their intervention, Rawlings discovered she has a learning disability and got help with her classes. That kind of interpersonal involvement was one of the main talking points at the Regional Dropout Prevention Summit in Murray. First Lady Jane Beshear opened the conference with a call for those outside of the education field to get involved.

Beshear said, "We've all heard it time and again, and it's it takes a village to raise a child.' Do you not agree with me? Well, this is what this is all about. We want to create a village for each child in the Commonwealth."

About a 165 educators, business leaders, community members, and state representatives participated in the event, which included lectures, panel discussions, and time for small group sessions on improving learning opportunities. In his first visit to far western Kentucky since coming on board in July 2009, State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday delivered the keynote address. In his speech, Holliday pointed to education's role in improving the state's economy.

"We're the fifth highest poverty rate in the nation," he said. "Thirty-one percent have less than a high school diploma. If we could just double the number of bachelor's degrees by 2020, which is one of our state's goals, we could raise the average household income by seventeen thousand in this region."

House Bill 301 would increase the legal dropout age from 16 to 18 over two years. Some legislators have sighted the extra educational costs these underperforming students would create for the system. Holliday said dropouts pose more of a burden in the long-run because they use more state resources, and don't give back to their communities.

"They're less likely to get health insurance, so who's going to pay for it: emergency room visits. They're less likely to be healthy," Holliday said. "They're half as likely to vote, four times less likely to volunteer or make other civic contributions."

Dropouts also make up the largest percentage of the state's incarcerated population. Holliday says when you add in the achievement gap between whites and minorities in Kentucky, the problem appears even more urgent.

He explained, "I worry that maybe we've got places in Kentucky where an African-American male is more like to end up in prison than to earn a four year degree from a college. That's a scary statistic."

Addressing the troubling facts head-on was the emphasis during breakout sessions. Christian County Public School District has a high poverty rate, with 72 percent of their students on free and reduced lunch. However, representatives from Christian County noted the educational success their district has had in just one year. They've moved up thirty places from their previously ranking as 9th worst in the state. Superintendent Brady Link said that shift followed an ideology change within the schools.

"People do not understand until they get closely touched with education and they live it the way we live it to see how young people are not just numbers or IQ scores, or how much they know about a particular subject; they're people," Link said.

Representative Melvin Henley of Murray took a break from the 2010 session to attend the summit. After hearing the discussion, Henley believes in better budget times more state support for alternative education centers could be part of the solution to reducing dropouts.

He noted, "Kids that have problems that develop in school, rather than letting them go on and the problems exacerbate and a lot of times that results in the kid dropping out. But if they get them into the alternative school where they get more attention, uh, one-on-one counseling, uh, the graduation rate will improve."

Presenters submitted more questions than answers, but the summit in Murray is only the second in a series envisioned across the state. Plans for those summits, like plans for decreasing dropouts, are forthcoming.