Special Report: Off the Grid

Jakob Jones, 16, dropped out of school but is determined to earn his GED and a post secondary diploma / Sarah Bleau

Lee County's dropout rate in 2009-2010 was 4.6 percent, down from 6 percent in three years; Dougherty County's was 3.2 percent, down from 4.6 percent, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

What's the story behind the statistics and the students?

For Jakob Jones, 16, his answer for why he dropped out is simple.

"My ninth grade year I slacked off a lot," says Jones.

The subject of dropping out is all too familiar to him.

"My brother actually dropped out of school when he was 16. He never got his GED, he never went to college, he just sat at home pretty much," he says.

Educators say there's more to dropouts than "slacking off" and "troublemaking." They say there are a number of underlying issues, number one being the economy and its effects.

"A lot of them are in households where they're trying to help mom financially and they don't really understand the importance of getting an education so they can truly help mom after they get a high school diploma and get into post secondary," says SaJuana Williams, Dougherty Comprehensive High School Assistant Principal. "They want the immediate help to mom. So they want to get a job so they can help mom pay bills."

Michael Nelson, director of the East Albany Boys and Girls Club, says some students who come there after school have parents who are too busy with work to help with homework.

"The parents are working so much, they've got one or two jobs or whatever so that parent may not be there to assist them with homework, to assist them with just being well rounded," he says.

Educators also say students who have difficulty grasping the basics in school become frustrated and often get to a point where they simply drop out.

"They've been retained more than two times so when they come to the high school they feel defeated already," says Williams.

Nelson says students become frustrated and embarrassed, so they cause trouble to avoid the attention.

"They're academically challenged so to speak. They'll create a problem so they can get kicked out. You'll say 'Johnny read this, Johnny what's the answer to this?' and he'll cause a problem so he can be kicked out, put in a corner, so he doesn't have to say anything in front of his peers," says Nelson.

Educators aren't faulting the school system for dropouts.

"Their hands are tied. There's only so much that they can actually do," says Nelson. "I've seen some steps that they've made but everybody has to buy into it. It can't be just the school system; it has to be the whole community. If there's a problem with the school system, there's a problem with the community and everybody needs to pitch in."

And they are.

The Albany and Dougherty County Kiwanis Clubs established the Bringing Up Grades program â" or B.U.G.s â" last year. It gives students incentives to bring up one grade per semester and maintain it.

At the East Albany Boys and Girls Club, the director says its students' grades increased at least 30 percent.

At Dougherty Comprehensive High School, they brought up their graduation rate from 49 percent to 72 percent in one year with the help of graduation coaches.

"It is so gratifying when your team of 20 to 25 kids, all of them make it across that stage," says Williams. "It takes the whole community to get our kids to the next level, not just high school; we look for them to go to post secondary options."

As for Jones, after he takes his GED test through the Albany Technical College's Adult Learning Center, he says he has some goals in mind.

"I'm going to Albany Tech for pharmacy tech, and then after I finish that I'm going to go back for something else but I haven't decided what I'm going to go back for yet," says Jones. "I didn't want to just quit school completely. I mean I have a goal I'm trying to reach in my life."

He says while working toward a GED fits his learning style, Jones says it's not for everyone.

"It's not that it's difficult; it's just that you have to have the right mindset because if you think you're just doing this to get out of school you're not going to succeed," says Jones. "You have to actually want to get through because there are people who have been here for a while and I'm going to be done in 25 days."

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