08/03/10 — Mission: Diploma

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Mission: Diploma

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 3, 2010 1:59 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Holly Jones' graduation project was parked outside Raper Hall at Mount Olive College on Monday, while, inside, she shared about the process that absorbed more than 20 months of her time.

The recent graduate, and salutatorian, of Southern Wayne High School chose to restore a 1974 Ford truck.

"It was top of the line in 1974," she said. "It belonged to my grandfather, and I have been wanting to restore it since I was a little girl."

After much research into how to gut and resurrect the vehicle, which included building a custom console and sound system, Ms. Jones said she encountered a few problems. At one point there was an oil leak, then a "knocking sound" in the engine.

Students were required to invest 15 hours, but Ms. Jones spent "nearly 300 hours" on the restoration, she said.

But what she gained went beyond the nuts and bolts of auto mechanics. She also learned much about herself.

"I learned I could work through both hunger and pain ... how to juggle my high school work, my college work, my friends, my family," she said. "I learned that I could go past the limits I had set."

The projects are a very important part of education in Wayne County, said Rick Pridgen, chairman of the Board of Education, who also spoke during Monday's conference event, "Graduate Wayne County."

Hosted by Wayne County Public Schools, the event was a lead-in to this year's summer institute for educators and parents, held today through Thursday at Mount Olive College.

Pridgen said he served as judge on several graduation project panels during the school year.

"There was a lot of contention out there over whether we were doing the right thing," he said, referencing the board's decision to continue requiring the legislature ended the mandate. "But after I saw what (students) were doing, I was convinced that we made the right decision."

A high school education cannot be undervalued, said those who spoke at the conference.

Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said the consequences of dropping out of school has been calculated in dollars and cents -- the cost to taxpayers per dropout is "over $292,000," he said.

"So what are we to do? Everybody has a role to pay to tip that scale into the positive side rather than the negative side," he said.

"We simply cannot afford to ignore the importance of school and keeping our kids in school," said Sen. Don Davis, keynote speaker. "We cannot afford for students to drop out of school. ... You can't educate a kid that's not in school."

Since being appointed chairman of the N.C. Dropout Prevention Commission, Davis said he has become even more of an advocate for the cause. Several pieces of legislation will be rolled out in the future toward that end, including identifying students at risk of academic failure or not graduating, as early as fourth grade; requiring the Department of Public Instruction to set more rigorous goals around dropout prevention; looking at more grant funding; and building upon the graduation coach concept.

There is still work to be done on improving the situation, Davis said -- from how the dropout rate is measured to ways of preventing youths from leaving school early.

"It requires a commitment from each individual student," he said. "We're dealing with a different generation, and they perhaps respond differently."

The easy way out is to continue pointing fingers, Davis said.

"As we come together as educators, parents, as individual students taking responsibility, and the last piece of this, as a community ... working together day in and day out, determined that we're not going to give up on these kids, I think we have a better chance of holding onto them."

The graduation project has been a useful tool for engaging students because it allows them to choose their own topic and to customize the process.

Anthony Miller, a recent graduate of Goldsboro High School, shared how his love of music became the centerpiece of his project, "Percussion: The Heartbeat of Music."

Matthew Radford recently graduated from Charles B. Aycock, where his project depicted the school's namesake and former N.C. governor, "Governor Charles B. Aycock, A Commitment to Education."

And then there was Kylie Glisson, a Rosewood High School graduate whose interest in law prompted her to pursue a project comparing family versus criminal law. The school's valedictorian has decided to study veterinary medicine at N.C. State next year.

"The graduation project is not there to make you do busy work," explained Catherine White, a counselor at Southern Wayne High. "It's there to make you do one of two things -- you're either going to do that in your future, or you learn that you're not going to do that in your future."

The graduation project is a "major passion" of hers, Ms. White said.

"It's important and the reason why ... is that there are students who don't know they can go outside of their shell and find what their passion is," she said. "The biggest problem our students have right now is that they don't believe in themselves and if they don't believe in themselves, then they have something that will make them grow."

Mark Loury, a counselor at Spring Creek High, said the expectation is for students to explore things that are important to them, "that the students' sincere appreciation for the process yields something either to do or not do, both equally important, an experience in many cases where they see and feel and witness the opportunities that they never had before."

The day culminated in breakout sessions on such topics as WorkKeys and Career Readiness Certification, agricultural education and other academies offered at area high schools and high school reform.