Summit to focus on Ky. school dropouts

Northern Kentucky's Walton-Verona Independent School District is relatively small, but it stands tall in one important respect — kids there don't quit school.

No Walton-Verona student has dropped out of school without graduating since at least the 2003-04 school year, according to state figures.

In fact, Larry Davis, the man primarily responsible for combating dropouts in the district, insists that no student has dropped out of the Walton-Verona Schools in past 11 years.

"Dropout is a word I won't even let kids talk about in my office," Davis says.

Statewide, however, dropouts remain a major educational challenge. Almost 6,500 students quit Kentucky schools without graduating last year. Ample statistics show that quitting school is a life-changing decision, making it tougher to find good-paying jobs and potentially setting the stage for a lifetime of financial struggles.

A two-day meeting to look for solutions to Kentucky's dropout problem gets under way Friday in Frankfort. First Lady Jane Beshear will be host for the Graduate Kentucky Summit, which continues through Saturday. It will be followed by a series of regional summits, ultimately aimed at developing plans to reduce dropouts statewide.

Educators generally agree that there is no single way to keep kids in school.

Walton-Verona's approach, for example, was to create an administrative position called "SAFE (Schools And Families Empowered) Agent" specifically to combat dropouts. Larry Davis has held the job since it was created 11 years ago.

Davis says he essentially works at every grade level in the school district, looking for children who are struggling with issues that potentially could cause them to drop out someday. He picks up hints, not just from teachers, but from bus drivers, custodians, cooks and parents. When at-risk students are identified, Davis tries to help the child overcome obstacles — whether it's a learning problem or a lack of appreciation for education at home.

"Working from pre-school through 12th grade helps because I get to know the families early," Davis said. "I purposely get involved in students' behavior issues because that gets me into their homes, and then I can build rapport with parents.

"I can use that rapport when kids have moments where they're frustrated or want to drop out. I can go right to the parents and can call them by their first names."

Augusta Independent, Barbourville Independent and Corbin Independent are among Kentucky school districts that also have achieved zero drop-out rates in recent years.

Other districts are using different approaches.

The Bell County Public Schools have had success cutting dropout rates in recent years through a Graduation Rate Task Force made up of district administrators, counselors and family resource works from individual schools and others.

"We started by listing kids that had dropped out and trying to get them back in school," Superintendent George Thompson said. "The good news is that the lists of names have gotten shorter every year."

Thompson said students still drop out for many reasons, including unwanted pregnancies. The district is working on ways to provide day care for students so they can finish school, he said.

"Options for our young people today are very limited if they don't finish high school and go beyond that," Thompson said. "Kids here used to drop out of school, go to work in the coal mines and make more money than teachers. But those days are gone forever."