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An Ounce of Prevention

Project 2020 Turns High School Dropouts into Graduates
Martha Liddell, superintendent of Columbus (Miss.) Municipal School District

The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that each year’s class of dropouts costs the country over $200 billion in lost lifetime earnings and unrealized tax revenue. In addition, since 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts, a 1 percent increase in high school graduation rates would save approximately $1.4 billion in incarceration costs, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. These are serious statistics that concern everyone in the education system, but Martha Liddell, superintendent of Columbus Municipal School District in Mississippi, is doing something about it. Liddell, who took over as superintendent last year after seven years as assistant superintendent, is spearheading Project 2020, an innovative and effective program on dropout prevention that is turning heads not only in other districts, but nationwide, as well. We sat with Liddell, who has a doctorate of education, to hear her district’s dropout turnaround success story.

DALI: What facilitated the idea for Project 2020?

Martha Liddell: In reviewing the research data, we uncovered a huge problem that needed addressing. We surveyed our own landscape, looked at who’s dropping out and why, and then spoke with parents and different community groups to discuss what we could do to help solve the problem. What we uncovered is that many of the students who drop out aren’t comfortable going back to the bricks-and-mortar building or the environment they left, but they do want to earn their high school diploma.

How did you accommodate that need?

Liddell: With Project 2020, students are still registered at their high school but able to go into e-centers we set up at other facilities within the community. They work online using Google Chromebooks (donated by Google) and the program is self-paced. And there’s a full wraparound approach where they get 360-degree support, both online and at the center. They can Skype the teacher, for instance, when they have a problem. We have day care centers on site. And they have life coaches—someone to say I noticed you were late today and you didn’t come yesterday. What can I do to help? The life coach may go and talk to the parents and serve as the liaison between the student and the life they have to navigate. That’s the biggest barrier. Then they get their cap and gown and go through the ceremony just like any other graduate, which gives them a sense of achievement. Everything is provided by a grant from the Walmart Foundation. We also have a grant commitment from the AT&T Foundation.

Who is running the e-centers?

Liddell: There is a lengthy application process for becoming a certified e-center. You have to demonstrate that you understand the importance of kids graduating, ensure they come every day, and be committed to making those home visits. Organizations such as churches, community centers, and youth-based nonprofits, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, have applied. The Mississippi Teacher Corps provides the teachers. We want people that have experience but also have the courage and heart to do the difficult work.

How do you locate students who have dropped out?

Liddell: We literally go into the neighborhoods and homes. Every state has a database which is shared among all the school districts within the state. If a child leaves my school district and the parent says they are enrolling somewhere else, we can track that and we’re able to tell very quickly whether the student did or didn’t enroll. If they disappear off the grid, we will know. Then we engage the principals, teachers, guidance counselors, and e-center directors and tell them, we need to find Mary and work to get her enrolled at the e-center. Since July 2011, CMSD’s focus has been on securing and setting up the e-centers. The district has already identified 124 dropouts we plan to reach out to in 2013.

Your program is much more than graduation recovery, isn’t it?

Liddell: Yes, Project 2020 is a continuum of services, from at-risk to excellence. We’re not just focusing on dropouts. We’re also focusing on those kids who are doing well who want to take advanced courses, want to enroll in international baccalaureate programs, or go to summer school to get ahead. We’re also able to educate our home school population. Our military base in Columbus trains a third of the nation’s pilots for the U.S. Air Force. Children of military personnel are used to the Department of Defense curriculum and are usually home schooled. We invite home schooled and private school students to the centers and if they come, our school district receives those funds from the state. We’re truly individualizing education for students. We also have a reward system to keep kids motivated. When they make progress, they get a T-shirt, or even an iPod or e-reader. It gets them excited about coming to the center.

In addition to studying for their high school diplomas, students will have dual enrollment with colleges, as part of our workforce development plan, as well as apprenticeships and jobs. Students want to know, ‘if I do this, what’s waiting for me on the other side?’ They go on field trips to the local industry where we show them the jobs they can get and the salary they can make. That approach offers them hope and vision.

We’re also using the e-centers to train parents. If we send those students into an environment where their parents are not equipped to support them, that’s going to be discouraging. Having opportunities at the e-centers to help parents succeed we feel will, in turn, help the student succeed.

What’s next?

Liddell: The Mississippi Department of Education has adopted our model to become the state model. We’re sharing with other school districts to get them excited, and I think we are going beyond the state to other states, as well. For more information about Project 2020, click here.