BROOKSVILLE — There aren't too many questions that draw a unanimous response from high school students.
But this one did: How many of you personally know someone who has dropped out of school?
One by one, all 13 hands went up on a recent afternoon in Steve Conti's auto mechanics class at Central High. Everyone had a story to tell about a friend who slipped through the cracks.
"Aggravation, stress, teachers," said 18-year-old Larry Morris, counting off some of the reasons peers have departed.
"Boredom," added Justin Wagener, 15. "You're just sitting in class day after day."
To be sure, these students have vowed to stick it out, get their diploma and, in many cases, go to college. Their interest in cars has given them a reason to stay.
But many students don't bother. Across the Hernando County schools this spring, administrators are struggling to find the tools to keep more of their peers from leaving school.
Last year, the district posted a 3.3 percent dropout rate — an improvement from the previous year's 4.9 percent, but no better than the state average. The graduation rate crept up from 74.1 percent to 75.1 percent, but some have criticized the state's formula as overstating the true number of students who succeed in high school.
"I think we're in an emergency mode," said School Board member John Sweeney. "We're coming to the realization our graduation rate is so low, we need to do something about it."
At a board workshop last week, central office staffers proposed a slate of new strategies to stem the tide of high school dropouts.
One is a variation on a tried-and-true theme: reach at-risk students early and help them catch up. Under the district's proposals, young children with behavioral problems or skills deficits would be targeted for smaller kindergarten classes or extra help under a state-supported grant program.
Students who fall behind on credits between sixth and 12th grades would get chances after school or over the summer to make up those classes, and at-risk middle-schoolers would get a special summer orientation before ninth grade.
The biggest change would come in high school, where students would be promoted through the grades to senior year, regardless of credits earned. They would remain in 12th grade until they earned the state-mandated 24 credits needed to graduate.
That didn't go over well with several board members, who agreed students must pass at least half their classes to advance.
"I feel this waters down our whole system," said board member Dianne Bonfield, warning of the dangers of promoting "freshmores" without credits.
But district staff members said the alternative — retaining students year after year, despite research showing the negative impact of such policies — was just as bad.
"Because they're a ninth-grader forever, we never see whether they have the potential to move on," said James Knight, director of student services. "It is demoralizing to stay in ninth-grade homeroom for three years."
Over at Central High School, guidance counselors do their best to steer at-risk students into the district's Technology Oriented Performance Program, a two-year course in which students catch up on credits via computer and often graduate on time.
That program would be expanded under the district's proposal, with 25 students enrolled at each of the county's four high schools.
But some students don't have sufficient reading skills to qualify, or don't take the initiative to enroll.
"A lot of the students who drop out don't cry out for help," said counselor Pat Barton. "They just flounder down and down."
Researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara say the single most important thing schools can do to reduce high school dropouts is forge personal relationships with struggling students.
Schools often need to create "small learning communities" or schools within schools to make such relationships possible, writes Russell Rumberger, a professor at the university's Gervitz Graduate School of Education and member of a California task force on dropout reduction.
Central has moved in that direction with the creation of a ninth-grade academy, and Hernando High has plans to create a similar program that would focus extra attention and resources on freshmen. But such efforts haven't yet reached most students in the county.
Schools must also develop relevant programs that link academics and the real world, like the Career Academy model being developed across Florida, the California researchers agree.
And counselors may need to reach out repeatedly to engage struggling students.
"They're very isolated," said Jennifer Ball, a career specialist at Central. "I have met with a few kids who, because they're behind a few credits, say they're going to give up. You have to reach those students at a personal level."
Work in progress
That's what happened in the auto mechanics class at Central. Students said their teacher, Conti, went the extra mile in reaching out to students who needed hands-on learning and relevance to stay engaged with their academic classes.
"If we didn't have a teacher like Mr. Conti, I'd already be out," said student Larry Morris.
But districts can't leave such things to chance, according to both the California research and a similar survey at Johns Hopkins University.
Successful dropout reduction programs make concerted, systematic efforts to connect with every student at risk of dropping out. Every teacher, administrator and staff member must understand and support the entire effort, from early childhood through high school, and see how the parts work together.
By that measure, the Hernando schools effort is just getting started.
"This is a continuous process," said Sonya Jackson, executive director of school services and accountability. "Certainly we will be adding to it as we go on."
Tom Marshall can be reached
or (352) 848-1431.