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Coalition works to keep kids in school

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Walter McDowell

Walter McDowell

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. during the school year, Walter McDowell spends 50 minutes at Atkins Academic and Technology High School working with a ninth-grader.

McDowell, who retired two years ago from Wachovia as CEO for Virginia and the Carolinas, is an adult volunteer for “Graduate. It Pays.”, a collaborative of roughly 30 local nonprofits formed four years ago to keep students from dropping out of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools.

“We said it was not okay to lose 900 kids a year,” says McDowell, who also serves on a voluntary basis as chief fundraiser for the collaborative.

Since he launched the fundraising effort 15 months ago, it has raised roughly $300,000, collecting $221,000 of the total last year.

With businesses contributing roughly 60 percent of the total, individuals 30 percent and foundations 10 percent, the collaborative has selected three programs to fund.

“We didn’t want to build anything that was new,” says McDowell. “We wanted to rely on existing successful agencies with a proven track record.”

For two years, for example, the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce has operated a “senior academy” for 12th-graders in danger of not graduating.

The program, which pairs adult volunteers with students, worked with 78 kids its first two years, and only three dropped out, and this year is working with 89 kids.

Communities in Schools of Forsyth County, which pairs college-student “graduation coaches” studying psychology or sociology with 10th- and 11th-graders, previously worked with 12th graders.

Of the 69 kids who participated in that 12th-grade program its first two years, 68 graduated, and of the 25 sophomores and juniors who participated last year, 23 advanced to the next grade and only two dropped out.

And in an effort launched this school year, Big Brothers Big Sisters Services operates a program for students who repeat ninth grade, pairing adult volunteers with kids.

The collaborative, which is working in six high schools, worked with 122 students last year, is working with 222 this year and plans to work with 390 next year.

All its programs are offered during the school day at the three schools housed at Atkins, plus Carver, Glenn, East Forsyth, North Forsyth and Reynolds high schools.

Volunteers do not act as tutors but rather aim to “build a relationship with a kid and develop gaining their trust,” McDowell says.

Sheryll Strode, a consultant and retired senior vice president at Wachovia who directs the collaborative as a volunteer and partners with McDowell in the fundraising effort, says adult volunteers are there to “listen to this young person, help them think through choices they’re making and the implications of the choices, cheer them on when they have successes, encourage them when things may not go exactly as they want them to go.”

If the adult volunteers find the students may need a tutor or additional support of any kind, the collaborative works with the guidance office to try to make those connections, Strode says.

“This is the community’s way to provide additional support for these students,” she says. “We want parents to view this as a partnership relationship. We’re there to add additional support. We’re not there to replace the parents.”

With the cost of working with one student ranging from $500 to $600, the operating budget for the program this year is $164,000.

And with plans to expand next year, the cost would grow to $233,000, with $125,000 already collected.

Based on a suggestion by a corporate donor, the collaborative in April plans to host an event to get its main funders and prospects together to help develop plans for future growth and funding.

“We’re doing it one donor at a time,” says McDowell, who has sponsored five students.

Strode oversees volunteer recruitment, which typically enlists adult volunteers from throughout the community, including local companies, churches and nonprofits.

And the group’s website at graduateitpays.org provides a step-by-step process for adults who want to get involved.

The school system and collaborative are “strong partners in the program and continue to work together to improve the experience for the volunteers and the students,” Strode says.

She says that while collaborative members range from large organizations to small grass-roots groups that all have their own missions, they have been able to work together to create a “common plan of action” to address a problem that affects the entire community.

The estimated lifetime “social cost” of a dropout, including taxpayer-funded programs such as prisons, hospitals and welfare, totals $260,000, the collaborative says.

“The cost of these programs is minimal compared to the projected cost to the state of North Carolina and our local communities of a single dropout,” Strode says.

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