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Educators Tap Into Dropout-Prevention Center

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CLEMSON, S.C.--If it were not for an innovative data base on dropout-prevention programs, Linda Vaughn would probably still be teaching 3rd graders at Centerville Elementary School in Anderson, S.C.

But thanks to a search through the data base run by the National Dropout Prevention Center here, which helped her win a federal grant, Ms. Vaughn is now the director of a $385,000 program at the school that tries to stem early dropouts.

"We wouldn't have had this grant without the center,'' she says.

Ms. Vaughn says she first turned to the center, which is affiliated with Clemson University, after the district's grant proposal for dropout prevention was put on hold at the state level.

Despite the rejection, she says, there was still a need for a dropout-prevention program in her elementary school, where a recent district reorganization had transformed the student population from a predominantly middle-class one to a far more diverse student body.

"We just knew that we wanted to do something for our at-risk students,'' she says.

Officials at the center, she says, told her about the federal grant program. And the center's data base, known as æïãõó, provided her with a variety of descriptions of projects that are under way in elementary schools across the country.

"We felt we didn't want to reinvent the wheel,'' she says. "It's not like you can go to a magazine store and pick up something about at-risk kids.''

After going through the descriptions and reading information suggested by the center, Ms. Vaughn says, she was able to craft a winning proposal, which includes funds for two caseworkers and two teaching assistants. It also includes money for three Reading Recovery specialists for 1st-grade students and three part-time instructional facilitators, who help teachers draft lessons that are appropriate for the school's 170 targeted at-risk children.

"In the short time we have had this program,'' Ms. Vaughn says, "we have made a tremendous difference in the school.''

Public and Private Backing

Although it has existed for only five years, and has a small staff, center officials would like to think the clearinghouse is making a similar impact on the quantity and quality of dropout-prevention programs throughout the country.

Located in a quiet residential area adjacent to the Clemson campus, the center is jointly funded by the public and private sectors, says Jay Smink, the center's executive director.

Speaking in an office that features pictures of such celebrities as Bill Cosby, who appeared at a recent fund raiser, Mr. Smink says the center can trace its beginnings to a corporate panel on dropout prevention. Since the wife of one of the more influential members of the panel was from South Carolina, he says, the group eventually found its home at Clemson.

Now, he says, the center relies on federal grants, private contributions, support from Clemson, and membership fees from more than 2,500 districts and other institutions interested in the issue.

The focus of the center, he says, "is to practice what we preach.''

The center is doing this, Mr. Smink says, through several interrelated projects. They include: managing the æïãõó data base, which includes descriptions of about 500 model dropout-prevention programs; providing technical assistance to schools through workshops and summer institutes; running an annual conference; and creating documents that synthesize literature about various approaches to dropout prevention, such as mentoring programs.

The center has also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to oversee and evaluate a dropout-prevention program in three districts. The goal of the program, Mr. Smink says, is to see whether a program that has already shown promise in Massachusetts can be replicated in urban, suburban, and rural settings.

The center is also scheduled to publish a new guidebook on evaluation. Such guidance has long been needed by districts, the executive director says.

"There has been a marginal effort spent on accountability and evaluation,'' Mr. Smink says. "I don't think legislatures are getting a good picture of how well their money is being spent on dropout prevention.''

For many educators, the center's twoand-a-half-year-old FOCUS data base has proven to be its most helpful service.

Marty Duckenfield, the center's information-resources coordinator, said the data base was originally created "because people wanted information about programs.''

"But as interest grew,'' she adds, "we had to do more.''

Now, she says, FOCUS includes information about conferences, organizations that are interested in dropouts and at-risk youths, resources at the center's library, as well as a list of consultants and speakers.

The data base, Ms. Duckenfield says, includes programs that have been cited by national education groups, the U.S. Education Department, and other experts.

Educators can gain access to the data base--the largest collection of dropout-prevention program descriptions in the country--via a personal computer and a modem, through Internet, a network for college and university workers, or by asking the center to conduct a search.

Center members are entitled to one free search each year; additional searches conducted by staff members, as well as searches for non-members, cost $25 each.

Helping Those 'in a Quandary'

In addition to Ms. Vaughn, the teacher-turned-dropout-prevention-coordinator, other educators say they have made productive use of the FOCUS data base.

Sean Zielenbach, the assistant to the director of the City Lights School, an alternative program for emotionally disturbed adolescents in Washington, D.C., says he asked the center to conduct a search for him so that he could get ideas for a federal grant proposal that is due next month.

"It was reasonably helpful in that it saved me a lot of research time,'' he says.

"I've gone through it and identified about four or five programs that sound particularly useful,'' he says. "Before too much longer, I'm going to make some phone calls to the people who are involved in these programs.''

Edward Schlissel, the director of guidance for the Newburgh Enlarged City District in New York, says he was referred to the center by federal officials when he requested more information about the new grant program. Mr. Schlissel says he was particularly interested in guidance programs that target elementary-school students that could be replicated in his school.

"I was in a quandary about where do I go, what do I do?,'' he says. "I can write [a grant proposal], but I needed some direction.''

"I'm still poring through these abstracts to find something that hits me between the eyes,'' he says. "At least I know that if I don't get [the proposal] in on time, I'll know where I can go now for more information.''

Mr. Schlissel says that, since his main goal is to develop the district's counseling program, learning about what other districts are doing and how he can duplicate their efforts is especially valuable.

"I was very pleased to see that there were things going on out there,'' he says. "Even if we don't get any money from the federal government, there are still things that we could do with existing funds and personnel.''

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