Why children quit school is a complex issue rooted in poverty and parental apathy, said experts who will speak at a dropout prevention conference today.
According to Editorial Projects in Education, Nevada's graduation rate of 45 percent is the lowest in the nation, a figure disputed by local and state education officials who say their research puts the state's graduation rate at 60 percent to 65 percent.
But the dropout problem begins long before students reach high school, said Sam Drew, associate director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Before a child even starts kindergarten, factors such as the parents' level of and support for education will determine whether a child is at risk of becoming a dropout, Drew said in an interview Tuesday.
Preschool education has been shown to make a difference in keeping a child in school, said Drew, but unfortunately it is expensive to fund and its "results are not immediate." Drew is scheduled to speak today at the "Ready for Life Nevada Dropout Prevention Summit" at the office of Nevada Partners, Inc., 710 W. Lake Mead Blvd., in North Las Vegas.
Legislators, educators and officials from nonprofit education groups plan to participate. The meeting is one of 50 summits planned nationwide and funded with grants from America's Promise Alliance, a foundation started by former secretary of state Colin Powell and his wife, Alma.
From a historical perspective, dropouts are nothing new. Children have always left school early, Drew said, but the issue has become a crisis because of the scarcity of low-skill jobs paying good wages and the increasing demand for high-skilled labor.
The dropout rate needs to be addressed through a comprehensive approach, Drew said. He said the schools cannot handle endemic social and economic issues on their own. Private charities and public and private partnerships will have to provide more funding as government aid becomes scarce.
Because of the state's current financial crisis, Communities In Schools of Nevada, a nonprofit that has used Drew's research to tackle the dropout problem, is not anticipating any help from the Legislature next year, said Louise Helton, the organization's state director.
In 2007-08, Communities in Schools managed to leverage a $350,000 grant from the Legislature to provide more than $2 million worth of services to public schools by forming partnerships with other charities and combining public dollars with private donations, Helton said.
Communities In Schools, for instance, began a program for low-income students that sent them home on weekends with backpacks filled with food. That program has since been handed off to Three Square, the anti-hunger organization, Helton said.
Besides supplying the basic needs, Drew identified the three R's that will keep students in school. They are: rigor, or whether the student is challenged in the classroom; relevance, which means the student is interested in the material; and relationships, which means the child has support from family and adult role models.
In terms of importance, Drew said the three R's are really "relationships, relationships and relationships."
Communities in Schools has tried to build on Drew's philosophy by making sure high-risk students at four target Clark County School District schools -- Bridger Middle School, and Canyon Springs, Eldorado and Desert Rose high schools -- are tracked by teams of teachers, case managers and family members who know the student's background and can follow the student's academic progress.
Communities in Schools has gotten so involved in the family lives of at-risk students that the organization has even helped pay for a funeral, Helton said.
To stem the dropout rate, Drew said that educators will have to become more creative. He suggested schools could do away with classroom grade levels for first through fourth grades, reducing the social stigma for failing students and letting students catch up in their weak areas instead of holding them back for an entire grade.
Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-799-2922.