Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tuscaloosa's dropout problem takes centerstage at First Community Summit

Instead of an opening song or prayer, one man's story kicked off a daylong summit on what has been identified as Tuscaloosa Alabama's most critical problem-- the number of high school dropouts.

The opening story was that of Jerry Carter, a native of Tuscaloosa, who instead of graduating from high school received his G.E.D. and is making a living as an employee for a local freight company. Last October, his son was killed in a hail of gunfire outside a sports bar.

His experience as both a high school dropout and the parent of a murdered child caught the attention of this West Alabama's city's mayor.

"What a better place this world would be if we had more Jerry Carters," said Walt Maddox, who is running for re-election in an upcoming August 25th election. Even as his campaign kicks into high gear, Maddox is challenging residents of this college town known most as the home of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide to not be satisfied until there is a 0 percent dropout rate.

After Carter told his story, Maddox and a host of city leaders addressed a sparse crowd of community and business leaders, ministers and a few residents who gathered at the city's newest high Central High School.

Maddox challenged those in attendance to leave the summit committed to solving the problem of dropouts, which he shares with dozens of other Alabama communities.

Statewide, 39 percent of students do not finish high school. Tuscaloosa City Schools' most recent graduation rate was just 69 percent, compared 83 percent in the Tuscaloosa County system

Tuscaloosa City School Board Member Earnestine Tucker and Carter rallied the members of the Westside Community Action Council to present this first ever summit under the theme "Reclaiming The Future, A Call to Action."

The daylong summit took up other problems that are facing the city

Alabama's Best Solution to Dropout

One thing that Alabama has offered to surrounding states and, most recently as far away as Virginia, is its Inside-Out Bus Tour.

Developed by the Birmingham-based Mattie Stewart foundation, the inside of the school bus has been reformatted as half jail cell and half classroom. Students in grades four and higher are encouraged to come aboard the bus where they are shown a video about the consequences of dropping out of school and then allowed to go into the makeshift jail cell and see what happens to many who do not finish high school.

Today the so-called "Choice Bus" was in Tuscaloosa outside of Central High School. Next month, ten more buses are to be rolled out to travel to every region of the United States.

The Choice Bus and a documentary called "Inside Out" were developed by a foundation started by Shelley Stewart, who owns an advertising agency here in Alabama.

Stewart was the keynote speaker for today's summit.

"The problem is we don't admit that there' s a problem. We're comfortable, we're complacent," said Stewart, who challenged the summit attendees to focus less on building programs and more of building relationships.

More Than Dropout Prevention

Teen pregnancy has been cited as a major factor in the dropout rate. In Alabama, the teen pregnancy rate is at 90 per 1,000 girls aged 15-19. That's compared to just 84 per 1,000 nationally.

One solution highlighted during today's summit was a local program, "Dads and Fatherhood project"

After general sessions this morning, summit attendees broke out into smaller groups to tackle such issues as economic and credit survival, juvenile and adult violence, neighborhood and community organizing and the drug abuse.

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