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New program provides funds to cut dropout rate

By Sarah Nagem
snagem@salisburypost.comThe Rowan-Salisbury School System has a new $6 million weapon to battle student risk factors that might lead to dropouts.
The newly formed LINKS program ó Learning, Intervention, Nurturing, Knowledge and Student Achievement ó will connect students with services that will help them make better decisions and stay in school, says Carol Ann Houpe, the program director.
Rowan-Salisbury is one of only three school systems throughout the state to win the grant this year. The Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant money will be awarded over the next four years from the U.S. Department of Education.
Houpe has spent the last couple of months mapping out a plan for LINKS.
She says she’s optimistic that hiring social workers and other professionals to engage students will help reduce the system’s dropout rate.
But Houpe says it won’t happen overnight.
“It’s going to take more than several years for us to make a difference with that,” she says.
For starters, Houpe is laying out the program’s goals.
Activities to promote a violence-free school environment will discourage bullying. Drug and alcohol prevention will be a focus, as will mental health and behavioral issues.
And the money will help school officials target at-risk students before they even step foot in a classroom, Houpe says.
The school system will hire five social workers as part of LINKS. The system currently doesn’t have any social workers on staff, Houpe says.
These employees will each focus on several schools. They will also visit some students at home.
Seeing students outside school is important when combating risk factors such as poverty, poor attendance and uninvolved families, Houpe says.
An unstable life at home is a red flag for potential dropouts, says Dr. Henry Johnson, who teaches a foundation of education course at Livingstone College.
But often, teachers and principals might not know about a student’s home life. Johnson says teachers should visit students at home and talk to their parents.
That way, he says, kids’ families will realize “schools are a caring institution.”
“Many times, parents look at the school environment as ‘us and them,’ ” Johnson says.
A visit from a school official can be much more effective for parents than receiving a letter in the mail, says Tim Smith, director of student services for Rowan-Salisbury.
Smith wrote the grant request for the school system.
“You’ll be amazed what some of these kids are living in and living through,” he says.
The school system’s social workers will also refer students for mental health care or substance abuse treatment, Houpe says.
The program’s goal is to increase the number of students who receive mental health services at school, she says. Instead of parents taking their children to appointments, health-care professionals will come to the schools.
Students could see a psychiatrist and head right back to class.
This will help parents, too, Houpe says. They won’t have to worry about transportation to appointments or getting the time off work.
Kids will also be able to get other services at school.
High schools ó and maybe middle schools ó will offer stop-smoking classes.
And programs will encourage students to say no to alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
“We really want to prevent it before it becomes a problem,” Houpe says.
The school system is also hiring five early intervention specialists who will work with at-risk pre-school age kids referred by Head Start, child care and other programs.
“This is focusing on kids before they start kindergarten,” Houpe says.
The specialists will visit the families and offer parenting classes.
“The sooner they’re identified and receive services, the more likely they will be to overcome the issues they may be facing,” Houpe says.
A new parenting resource center will give parents extra help, like classes and books.
Another focus of LINKS is helping students adjust to school after they have been in long-term mental-health care or a juvenile justice center.
The two transition counselors the system will hire will help these students and their families become oriented, Houpe says.
Without support, she says, those students would be at risk of quitting school.
The system is also hiring two Hispanic specialists who will help bridge the gap between schools and families who don’t speak English, Houpe says.
Many of these programs are scheduled to be in place by next fall. Houpe hopes the social workers will start work by the end of the school year.
Smith says focusing on the tough issues ó like health care, drugs and home lives ó will have a positive effect on students.
Time will tell. So far, school leaders are optimistic the program will reduce dropout rates.
“I really do think it will,” says Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom.

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