For all of the well-documented struggles facing K-12 education in Mississippi, one area where the state has made significant progress is high school dropout rates.
Over the past six years, the state’s dropout rate has decreased by almost six percentage points — from 16.7 percent in 2012 to 10.8 percent in 2016.
In the Golden Triangle, those rates have decreased by an even greater rate. The Starkville-Oktibbeha County dropout rate is just 3.4 percent, the ninth lowest in the state.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Municipal School District has seen an even more dramatic decrease in recent years. Over the past three years, the dropout rate has fallen from 17.1 percent to 9.8, a full point below the statewide average.
Tuesday, CMSD officials kicked off a new campaign it calls “Bridging the Gap” to further reduce those dropout rates.
“We’ve identified 50 male students who we believe to be at a high risk of dropping out of school,” said Superintendent Philip Hickman. “The idea is to reach out to these kids and intervene. Today, we are introducing the program. Then, we’ll break them down into smaller groups and they’ll meet with a mentor each month to talk to them about what’s going on, give them advice and encouragement.”
During Tuesday’s introductory session, the students listened to speakers that included Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, Columbus Police Department Assistant Chief Fred Shelton, officers from the Mississippi Department of Corrections and a pair of former prison inmates who provided their own cautionary tales.
One of those former inmates, William Edmondson, 47, of Caledonia, said he was moved to join the program because he understands how big a factor dropping out of school can be on a person’s future.
Edmondson spent seven years in prison on drug charges, and while he wasn’t sent to prison until age 35, he said dropping out of school played a big role on his path to prison.
“It was a huge factor,” Edmondson said. “I dropped out of school when I was 14 years old, in ninth grade. By then, I had been using drugs for a year or two already, but dropping out of school just moved me farther down the path.
“All the experiences you get in high school and the positive influences you get from school, you lose that when you drop out,” he added. “By the end of your school years, your identity is set. The other part is when you drop out, who are you going to be around? Who are your friends? They’re people who have no goals, no futures, just like you. I learned a long time ago: Give me some time around your friends, and I can tell you who you are.”
Edmondson, who was released from prison in 2009, said he hopes his own story will resonate with the students he feels are on the edge of making some really bad choices, not the least of which is dropping out of school.
“There’s nothing good about prison. Nothing,” he said. “I’ve seen men raped, murdered. I saw a man have scalding water thrown on his face to the point where it looked like his face was just melting off.
“I wouldn’t wish prison on anyone,” he added. “Not every dropout will end up in prison, but I can’t think of hardly anybody I met in prison who wasn’t a dropout. Dropping out puts you on a road where you don’t want to go.”
The school district did not make the student participants available for interviews.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.