Bonnie Dulaney is a freshman at West Lauderdale High School, and she is a member of what is, essentially, a gigantic student council.

The State Superintendent's Youth Advisory Board is a newly formed group of students from different high school grade levels and Mississippi school districts whose main task is to give the State Superintendent of Schools, Hank Bounds, an idea of what students need and how they feel, similarly to the way that a student council would advise their school's administration.

The focus of the Student Advisory Board right now: drop-out prevention. According to the Mississippi Department of Education, 1 in 4 Mississippi children will drop out of school. Their goal, to reduce the drop-out rate by 50 percent by 2012.

They are using several techniques to go about this. One is an awareness campaign called "On the Bus." Funded by a grant from State Farm Insurance, the campaign uses a Web site, television and radio ads, and billboards to get the message to kids that dropping out won't do them any good.

Another is ideas and involvement from students, teachers, parents, and community members. The Youth Advisory Board met at the "Destination Graduation: Teen Summit" in January to throw around ideas on how to lower the drop-out rate in Mississippi. At least two students from every high school in Mississippi were included in the summit.

"We asked stuff like how students think schools influence communities, and what they could do to cut the drop-out rate," said Dulaney, 15, "We put our best ideas on these post-its, and we ended up with about 17,000 post-its."

The students then went through the mountain of post-its to try and organize their ideas. Dulaney's favorite: a change in curriculum. "Here, it would definitely make an impact to change the curriculum. Our schools emphasize college prep courses, and not everybody's going to go to college, so I think we need a curriculum that emphasizes not only that, but going into the career field and vo-tech classes."

Dulaney also attended an adult summit, in which parents, teachers, and community members learned and shared ideas about drop-out prevention. Of both summits, she said, "It really made an impact ... 26 percent of Mississippi students drop-out. It costs our state and our country up in the billions ... it really opened my eyes."

She said the summits included professional consultants as well as students and community members, but that the ideas from everyone all came back to increasing motivation through curriculum change, parent involvement, and peer encouragement.

One place where a curriculum change is already set to take place is Meridian High School. There, through a "high school re-design" project funded by a bond passed last year, officials plan to put the school on a "small learning community" curriculum.

Through small learning communities, students will be given the opportunity to choose the focus of their education - be it college prep, the arts, or vocational training, or one of several other choices - and will work with smaller groups of students and teachers.

"One of the main focuses of the small learning community is prevention of drop-out," said Meridian School Board President Fred Wile in a telephone interview. "If you can hook students with something they enjoy, you'll may be better able to help them."

"Rather than being part of a 1,300 person school," he added, "you're part of a three or four hundred person community."

Wile said that he doesn't think the drop-out problem can be fixed merely by changing school curriculum, though, saying that many of the children who eventually drop out of school, "weren't read to (at home), weren't engaged in conversation, didn't have the opportunity to go to pre-k, and they arrive behind and lack encouragement to catch up."

"The more we can engage the community as a solution," said Wile, "the better off the community can be...It's just one more piece in this one big puzzle."

Local State Farm agent Percy Bland, who, as a parent of two children in the Meridian School system, has taken an active interest in drop-out prevention, agrees with both Dulaney and Wile, saying that a curriculum change could help lower drop-out rates, but that much of the problem still lies outside the schools.

"It's not just a school problem," he said, "it's a community-wide problem, and everybody should be involved in that."

But he wants schools to take action as well, saying that the current educational system lets too many children slip through the cracks.

"We try to train every child the same exact way ... but nothing outside the school system works that way," he said. "The real world, the marketplace, is not structured how the school system in structured, and businesses have to get involved to help schools get more in line with the marketplace."

Bland said he feels that every child has some kind of special talent, skill, or intelligence, but that teaching all children in the same way makes it difficult to find their very different areas in which they excel. In the business world, he said, people choose careers based on their personal talents, and he feels the school system should emulate that model in its curriculum in order for children to be interested, involved, and use what they have learned when they enter the adult world.

Additionally, Bland feels that all the schools in the community should be exemplary despite economic and cultural differences.

"There's no reason why they all shouldn't at couldn't be on the same level," he said.

Wile said it's a problem the community can't afford to ignore.

"The drop-out problem is a real problem," said Wile. "It affects us significantly here and it's a problem we need to address."

On the Web:

"On the Bus" drop-out prevention program:

Mississippi Department of Education Office of Dropout Prevention:

Meridian Public Schools:

Lauderdale County School District:

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