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Georgia 'Losers' Trade Self-Help Ideas on Dropouts

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Atlanta--Like hundreds of other school districts nationwide, 29 of the 30 Georgia districts that applied for federal dropout-prevention grants found out this fall that they were "losers."

But failure in the highly competitive grants competition produced a constructive counter-reaction here, where the lack of targeted state funding for dropout programs might have made the loss seem doubly discouraging.

Instead of brooding over their predicament, officials from 18 of the Georgia districts turned down by the U.S. Education Department decided to hold what they facetiously labeled a "losers' roundtable."

And from that unusual brain-storming session, held here this fall, the groundwork was laid for a cooperative relationship that promises to yield the next best thing to financial support: the creative sharing of ideas.

The meeting's organizer, Tom Keating, director of governmental relations for the Atlanta Public Schools, said he settled on its informal name to give the gathering a certain kind of perspective.

He compared the participants' situation to that of the students they are trying to help.

"A lot of times, if you don't get a federal proposal, you throw it in the drawer, you fuss at the feds and you feel like a loser," he said, "and we're not."

"A lot of times the kids are labeled as losers, and they're not."

Discussions during the swiftly paced, 90-minute meeting were governed by the strictest of guidelines--participants were forced to pare their wish lists for extra resources down to a single item.

But the interactions provoked by this stricture revealed two fundamental facts about the dropout dilemma: concern is as intense in remote and relatively isolated districts as it is in urban districts; and in many areas, officials have been trying to "reinvent the wheel," as one participant put it, because they seldom have the chance to engage in such cooperative efforts.

At first glance, the districts represented at the forum here appeared to have little in common.

Some are so small their entire student enrollment would fit into one of Atlanta's high schools. Their racial and economic makeups vary widely, as do the social environments of the communities they serve.

But the participants quickly zeroed in on their common ground: the uncertain futures too many of their students face because of leaving school without a diploma.

The social forces that draw students out of their schools also have common characteristics, the district representatives discovered.

The lure of drugs pulls a larger number of students from the schools in Atlanta, they found, but it also poses a serious problem in Brooks County, Ga., a five-hour drive away on the Florida border.

Students in Chattooga County frequently drop out to follow their parents' path into the local textile or carpet mills. But students in the cities are also quitting to take dead-end jobs, pointed out representatives from urban districts.

The bulk of the meeting, however, was devoted to exploring how the districts could help each other meet their most pressing needs.

"The point was that so often we've had programs on the problem and never advanced beyond discussions about creating awareness," said Mr. Keating. "What we really wanted to hear from real practitioners was what they feel they need to get the job done."

In the first part of the meeting, each district representative identified the single most important resource needed for their efforts; the balance of the time was allotted for participants to brainstorm ways these needs could be met.

Mr. Keating used a mixture of brusqueness and humor to enforce the ground rules.

When Atlanta's representative said he needed two half-time staff persons and a student tracking system, the moderator insisted: "I must force my dearest colleague to make a choice of one thing--one thing."

The Atlanta request was eventu8ally scaled down to one dropout specialist, and Mr. Keating responded: "Now everybody's on the same playing field, politically."

The implication was not hard to miss.

In the eyes of the Georgia public, and many of the state's legislators, the dropout problem is an urban problem, which pits Atlanta's funding requests against those of the state's rural districts.

Thus, the meeting was in many respects a show of unity, meant to send a message to the rural legislators who control the state's appropriations committees that the dropout problem affects their constituents, too.

But the tensions that exist between rural and urban educators were not completely hidden, despite the spirit of cooperation that had brought them together.

In Georgia, as in many other states, some rural educators say that urban districts receive a disproportionate share of attention and resources. And urban educators typically argue that the severity of their problems demands even greater support than they are receiving.

This sentiment was particularly evident when participants discussed the role of businesses in providing dropout-prevention assistance.

"We're limited, in that we don't have the extras that you're talking about and we don't have our industries coming in and helping us," said Don Hayes, superintendent of the 3,300-student Chattooga school system. "That's where we're hurting."

Chattooga County has two industries, he explained, carpet and textiles. It is not blessed with the type of diversified corporate structure, which includes such giants as ibm and Coca-Cola, that has given Atlanta, for example, a high-profile adopt-a-school program.

Business-education relationships in his district, Mr. Hayes said, amount to little more than students' saying, "Why should I go on to finish when I can go to work in the mill and make $6.50 an hour?"

But Frank Douglas, a newly hired administrator with the Muscogee County school system, took a different tack. "It's amazing what you can do with the industry you have," he said.

Industry executives should be persuaded, Mr. Douglas said, to make students aware of the full range of employee responsibilities within their companies, including those of top management.

"Unfortunately, most of our kids are exposed to just the very ground levels of work," he said. "They never see the need to strive for further education to get to the top."

"They get in to that entry-level, dirty job, they make a few dollars, they buy a car, they get gas, and that's what they want."

Others shared strategies for soliciting help from local businesses.

Two of the districts--Whitfield and Murray Counties--have worked with local employers to establish a direct line of communication with parents. Not only have the businesses agreed to stuff payroll envelopes with school-related notices, they have also allowed meetings with the parents of at-risk students at the job site.

"What do you do when you're eyeballing a parent who says, 'What are you doing here on my job?"' asked Mr. Keating.

"You're on good ground," said Sue Phelps, assistant superintendent in Whitfield County, "if you've already worked with the parents' employer. The key is getting your employers into your network first."

The rural-district participants also expressed frustration over their inability to recruit qualified dropout-prevention specialists.

"You in the Atlanta area may have people who have this expertise," said one, "but we don't have them, and we need certain leads."

"Is there any way you can help him?" Mr. Keating asked. "Can anybody say, 'Hey, we've just had five people apply for a job like that in our school system, and we've got some names we can share with you?"'

Few of the districts had actual resources they were able to direct to the needs of other school systems. Ms. Phelps did offer to donate old but usable reel-to-reel tape recorders to exodus, a community based organization trying to involve some of Atlanta's at-risk students in an oral history project.

But what the discussions provided some, they said, was an equally valuable rethinking or sharpening of their dropout-prevention strategies.

Effie Kieth, who traveled from Brooks County to attend the meeting, said that as she listened to districts describe their need for counselors she had "this feeling in the pit of my stomach."

"We've got an elementary counselor," she said, "but you've got to drag kids into the office to go see him, because they don't feel free to go in and talk."

"When you're talking about the coordinators and counselors," she concluded, "you might want someone who's really in the discipline of social work, because that person's going to be problem-oriented. He's not going to look at the kid as having a deficit, and he may be able to work better with the family and with the student."

Mr. Keating summarized the meeting toward its close by reminding participants that "the point here is self-help."

"That means you've got to call [your colleagues] tomorrow at 6:30 in the morning and say, 'You said something yesterday that triggered my bananas and I'm ready to go."'

The district officials have established an informal network for that type of instantaneous sharing of information, ideas, and encouragement.

"Nobody likes to be alone out there working on this issue," Mr. Keating said.

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