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Stay-in-school plan is a business proposition

There's lots of talk these days about the need to improve the relationships between businesses and schools and the need to improve the nation's high school dropout rate.

Bob Jarlenski and some others at the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce are doing more than talking. They are starting a program they call Keep a Kid in School.

Actually, the program is all about getting kids out of school. Briefly, that is _ but long enough to let them see what opportunities lie outside the school grounds if they don't drop out.

"The whole idea is to give some purpose to staying in school," said Jarlenski, chairman of the chamber's education committee. "The children at risk (of dropping out) just don't see any reason for staying in school."

Some students already see clearly the need to stay in school. Scholarly types stay in so they can get into college. Athletes stay in with hopes of playing in the big leagues. Aspiring musicians like the sound of their instruments played along with the rest of the band.

But what about the students who fall between the cracks, the ones who just want to get out, get a job and get to work?

Those are the ones the Keep a Kid in School program is targeting.

The idea is for one or more local business people to team up with a student who is in the school system's dropout prevention program. They will meet at least once or twice a month _ Jarlenski is hoping it will be more like once or twice a week _ either at the school or at the business person's place of work.

It will be more than a monthly field trip or a career day, though. Volunteer business people will not just tell students about their jobs. They will also help them with their homework, talk with them about problems they can't discuss with parents or other adults, or maybe just take them to a football game or to the zoo.

"It will be a lot like the Big Brothers-Big Sisters programs, only this will be through work," Jarlenski said.

It is hoped that students will see firsthand why it was important that the business owner stayed in school. They'll see why a banker can't be a banker without starting with a high school diploma, or why a lawyer can't get into law school without first getting through high school.

And they'll see the benefits that come from those jobs. They'll see the lawyer's BMW or the business owner's spare time or the banker's influence in the community.

"If a person's environment changes a person's behavior, and we think it does, then we want to change these kids' environments for the better," Jarlenski said. "Some of these kids just need some form of support that maybe they're not getting from their families or their teachers or their friends right now."

The plan is for each of Pasco County's four high schools to choose two student volunteers _ one boy, one girl _ from the schools' dropout prevention programs.

They will be paired with mentors _ probably two or three mentors for each student _ at a meeting Oct. 13. The students will meet with their mentors regularly until May, when the school year concludes.

Even after that, mentors will be encouraged to keep in contact with the students, said Steve Luikart, an assistant principal at Ridgewood High School who is working with Jarlenski on the Keep a Kid in School program.

"A lot of times kids become productive just because of the attention they get all of the sudden," Luikart said. "Sometimes we give them a boost through one of these programs, but if we take that boost away after they get off the danger list, it's possible that they'll either slide back or completely withdraw" from school.

Luikart calls the Keep a Kid in School program an ideal business-education partnership and a great way to let students know about the importance of staying in school.

"There are students walking around school with 130 IQs," Luikart said. "But until now they haven't been able to find a reason to say, "Yes, there is something out there I can relate to and make me want to stay in school.' "

Luikart and Jarlenski have worked together in other programs, including the Turnaround Achievement Awards program that Jarlenski helped form eight years ago.

The Turnaround Awards recognize public school students who have turned their lives around during a school year. Past recipients have included teenage substance abusers who have kicked the habit, regular school-skippers who have improved their attendance dramatically and kids who just went from having lousy grades to having good grades.

Jarlenski, who spent seven years teaching school in Miami before eventually becoming a marketing consultant for bowling alley owners, helped start the Turnaround program in Pinellas in 1984. Since then, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Hillsborough, Dade and Duval counties have started other programs.

And like the Keep a Kid in School program is likely to show, the Turnaround Awards program has shown that kids don't necessarily need multimillion-dollar schools or fancy new computers or even good parents to get them to stay in school and succeed.

All they really need sometimes is someone who cares.

For information on the Keep a Kid in School program, call Jarlenski at 868-0367 or the chamber at 842-7651.

The North Suncoast Business column appears each week. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Call Robert Keefe at 869-6245.