By Kirsten J. Barnes
Center for Community-Based Partnerships
A David Mathews Center forum entitled "Our Community, Our Future: The Role of Citizens in Solving the High School Dropout Problem" will be held March 6, at Auburn University-Montgomery's Taylor Center from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Registration is free and lunch will be served. To register click here.
During the past 10 years, Alabama's high school dropout rate has plunged from 15.58 percent to 7.08 percent, according to figures for 2008"“2009 released by the Alabama Department of Education. The national dropout rate for the same period was 8.1 percent.
Chris McCauley, executive director of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life in Montevallo, hopes the forums sponsored by the center will help uncover ways that communities can reduce the rate even further.
In recent months the center polled Alabamians and asked questions concerning public issues that citizens could come together to address, McCauley said. "We were working toward what public issue concerned Alabamians the most."
The two issues that emerged were the dropout rate and the economy."
The dropout rate seemed to be a more manageable topic, so the center conducted forums in 28 counties on the issue.
McCauley said the forums were not meant to solve the problem, but instead to help community members talk through the retention rate to develop ways to solve the issue as a community.
"The Mathews Center doesn't take a stance on the issues. It's up to the people in the community to come up with the ideas. We provide factual data and a framework to deliberate and think through what they can do. A lot of great ideas come up," McCauley said, including youth mentoring programs and additional support services for single parents.
State officials welcome this effort by the Mathews Center.
"The forums are having an absolute major impact on the dropout rate," said Kay Atchinson Warfield, an education administrator with the dropout prevention and support unit of the Alabama Department of Education. "What we have found is that the public does not understand all the variables that impact the success of a student."
She said by raising the level of awareness in the community these forums can directly affect students by informing their parents.
"These public forums have provided a level of awareness that has never been done in our state before. It's everybody's issue," said Warfield, who has actively participated in the process. "The schools cannot do it alone. We've got to have partnerships with public services because it takes us all working together to have an impact."
Both McCauley and Warfield said they were amazed by the ideas that came out these community conversations.
"Central High School in Phenix City had some of the most innovative students thus far," McCauley said. "The students produced a documentary of the dropout rate in Phenix City and will present this at AUM."
The forums are modeled after the Kettering Foundation's National Issues Forums.
"The goal is to work with citizens across the state and get them to take action on issues that that impact them," McCauley said. "We outline some of the contributing factors and some of the outcomes. For example, there is a correlation between the dropout rate and prison population. We give citizens the opportunity to come together and work toward solving problems in unique ways. It's an action driven project."