Exchanging Views: Teenagers and Inmates Wrestle With the Dropout Crisis

By: Alexandria Smith

Students from Barbara Romey’s Central High School class and students in Kathleen Jones’ GED program at the Russell County Jail participated in a deliberative forum on raising the high school graduation rate on Tuesday night, September 27, 2011.

Participants in the forum included J.O.Y. Behind Bars a non-profit organization founded by Eddream Lawrence in 1999.   Mrs. Lawrence is a retired school Counselor and Russell County resident who saw the need for someone to “stand in the gap” educationally, emotionally, and spiritually for children when the parents are in transition in and out of the correctional system. For more than eleven years, J.O.Y. Behind Bars has worked with incarcerated parents and their children who are considered “high-risk” students. Mrs. Lawrence was invited to collaborate as part of the Alabama Issues Forums, a statewide program of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, in cooperation with University of Alabama’s New College and the Community and Civic Engagement Initiative in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University.

Participants weighed the pros and cons of various approaches to the issue and then broke up into pairs for individual interviews and further discussion. Relationships—home, school, and community–were a common theme among students.  Some GED students shared that issues such as substance abuse, lack of school flexibility and lack of parental guidance led them to make decisions that resulted in dropping out.  “I was devastated not walking with my class,” said one female student, who was two credits short due to a car accident at the time of graduation.

When asked about why they have chosen to stay in school, current high school students expressed several reasons, including extracurricular activities and classes that are enjoyable. One student listed her theatre class as the reason she’s enthusiastic about attending and completing high school.  Another student said his reason concerned the future. “I want my children to look up to me; I want them to see my accomplishments and then see them exceed them.  It’s selfish in a way, but that’s my reason.”  Still another student said, “I had no support. My parents were selling drugs, and I dropped out in the seventh-grade and starting selling drugs also.” Central High students are creating a documentary on high school dropouts to encourage middle-school students to stay in school and fulfill their potential.

Participants discussed the need for better parent-teacher relationships and high school classes that use more hands-on approaches to teaching and learning. One student felt that mentors would help students stay in school.  J.O.Y. Behind Bars initiated a mentoring program, JOY In The Community to mentor children in the Chattahoochee Valley area, including Muscogee County who have parents incarcerated, thereby helping to decrease the dropout rate.

The forum was moderated by Dr. Mark Wilson, with assistance from undergraduate Mathews Center interns from Auburn University. “I’ve participated in several forums over the past year, and I’ve found that for the topic of education, jails and prisons provide the best insight into what some students face,” says intern Stephanie Grant.

Joining high school and GED students for a conversation to work through the issue provides invaluable information and wisdom for citizens to make a difference in Russell County.

Interns Hunter Morgan, Alexandria Smith, and Stephanie Grant with UA's Ashley Kontos and DMC Executive Director Chris McCauley

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