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Clay County students came up with the concept for this poster used in a marketing campaign to fight dropout rates.

MANCHESTER, Ky. — After struggling for years with high school dropout rates that exceeded both the state and national averages, educators in Clay County are joining with community leaders, parents, and students to fight one of the region’s greatest educational challenges.

And Forward in the Fifth, a nonprofit organization working to advance educational attainment in Southern and Eastern Kentucky, is helping the school system there make its most significant progress in that fight in many years.

Thanks to grant funding from Forward in the Fifth, the system has launched a student-driven dropout prevention media campaign aimed at encouraging students to stay in school and complete their high school education.

Clay County was one of three systems in Southern and Eastern Kentucky that received $1,500 in “seed money” from Forward in the Fifth’s Local Education Affiliate Program (LEAP) during an initial round of grant funding in 2011.

Officials there used the funding to establish a community-based plan to aggressively address dropout prevention.

The extra effort appears to be paying off. For the first time in more than five years, Clay County High School in 2011 met its target graduation rate as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, graduating two percent more students than the previous year.

“Involving educators, community leaders, parents, and students in real solutions to solve real challenges is at the core of LEAP,” said Jim Tackett, executive director of Forward in the Fifth. “These and like-LEAP programs across our region are using enthusiasm, innovative, and resources to make schools and communities better places to work, live, and learn.”

Forward in the Fifth, an affiliate of The Center for Rural Development, was formed in 1986 by U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers (KY-05) and other leaders to work to reverse low educational attainment levels in the Fifth Congressional District.

Clay County schools launch media campaign

A large part of Clay County’s LEAP plan centered around the creation of a dropout prevention media campaign. The idea was born at a series of Graduation Summits and community meetings, where education professionals and high school students worked together to come up with creative solutions to address the county’s dropout rates.

Clay County High School junior Shelli Hurt said the marketing campaign reinforces the message that a high school education is the best stepping stone to a brighter future.

“Graduation has always been my goal,” said Hurt, who worked with other Clay County students to develop the concepts for two color posters used in the print media campaign. “Knowing that my school, my teachers, my community is supporting me makes me work even harder to achieve my career goals.”

The marketing campaign, targeted for parents of students in grades 5-12, includes newspaper advertisements, posters, and banners incorporating two positive “Stay in School” messages.

One of the posters features an image of a padlock and key, and reminds students a high school education is the key to unlock the future. The other poster, which shows a high school graduate wearing a cap and grown and proudly displaying her diploma, encourages students to stay the course and complete their high school education.

The posters, created by Clay County High School students and designed by the staff at the local Manchester Enterprise newspaper, are being prominently displayed throughout the county in schools and local businesses.

Clay County instructional supervisor Dr. Deann Stivers Allen wrote the application that earned the system acceptance into the Forward in the Fifth LEAP program. Dropout prevention is everyone’s responsibility, she said.

“If we are going to advance our students in the 21st Century,” she said, “we have to make sure every student who graduates from Clay County High School, or anywhere else in the 5th Congressional District, is college and career-ready.”

Grant funding came at a critical time

U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers (KY-05), fourth from left, and Forward in the Fifth executive director Jim Tackett, third from left, announce a dropout prevention project for Clay County schools.

Since work began on the project several months ago, Clay County schools received the positive news about meeting its federally mandated graduation rate through the No Child Left Behind law.

According to an independent study compiled by education consultant Dr. Ann Lyttle Burns of Lexington, more than half of the 425 kindergarten students who entered Clay County schools for the first time in 1996 did not graduate high school on time.

Out of that original group of 425 kindergarten students, the study showed, 217 students entered their freshmen year on time, but, during the next four years, only 145 of those students from the Class of 2009 walked down the aisle graduating on time with students who they began their education with.

“Plans are underway to ensure a more aggressive approach to the dropout problem,” said Clay County Schools Superintendent Reecia Samples. “Our plans include the adoption of a zero-percent dropout rate goal. To meet our goal, we must seek out innovative ways to meet individual student needs.”

Those plans include developing a master schedule with performance-based credits, virtual credits, and dual credit classes for Clay County students.

In addition to Clay County schools, Forward in the Fifth has awarded $13,500 in LEAP grant funding to schools in Pulaski, Monroe, Bath, Wayne, Letcher, Breathitt, Floyd, and Johnson counties since the program started in April of 2011. Each recipient received $1,500 in funding support to address a relevant educational issue in their community.

Efforts to further advance educational improvement in these counties have been accepted by each LEAP partnership.