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Yarbrough: A BRIDGE to graduation, then work

POSTED: February 6, 2008 5:04 a.m.

The HOPE scholarship has kept a number of Georgia's brightest kids at home and has vastly improved the academic quality of our state's universities and colleges. If a college education isn't your bag, the state of Georgia also offers one of the best technical education systems in the nation. Great universities and great technical schools in the same state: That combination should be a win-win for our young people, but the wonderful world of education doesn't work that way.

Irony No. 1: The rate of ninth-graders in the state's public high schools who do not graduate four years later stands at between 30 and 40 percent. They leave with no job skills. That's shameful.

Irony No. 2: Sixty percent of the state's high school counselors, 56 percent of high school principals and 72 percent of high school teachers have little or no knowledge of Georgia's Department of Technical and Adult Education. That's even more shameful.

These numbers are courtesy of Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who has introduced HB 905, also known as Building Resourceful Individuals to Develop Georgia's Economy, or BRIDGE. If enacted, the bill would implement a "market-demand skills program" in grades 10-12 in Georgia's high schools. In short form, Millar says the proposed law would provide a separate track for kids who are not college material and give them the skills to compete in the job market while in high school.

If sheer enthusiasm could pass legislation, BRIDGE would be a law as we speak. Millar passionately believes in the effort.

"We spend more than $10 billion annually in Georgia on education," he says, "and for too long we have focused on every child going to college. Too many are not even finishing high school. Our legislation would give all students a choice of focused programs of study starting in the ninth grade, including programs for students who would otherwise drop out."

Millar says much of his inspiration for HB 905 comes from several public high school systems in Georgia that have shown remarkable progress in their graduation rates through an emphasis on student readiness for the work force, not just college preparation.

Camden County, for example, has improved graduation rates for black students from 59 to 78 percent in the last four years and Hispanic students from 61 to 86 percent. In Whitfield County, where there is a large population of Hispanics, Dalton High School saw graduation rates increase from 56 percent to almost 73 percent in the same period.

"These systems prove that our dropout rate can be reversed if proper emphasis is placed on job skills," says Millar, who thinks his legislation could raise graduation rates to 90 percent.

Millar acknowledges he has a tough row to hoe before and if BRIDGE ever becomes law. There are more groups with a toe in the education water than there are fish in the sea. Everybody has a vested and sometimes opposing interest in the subject, which is why public education progress is so difficult to achieve in our state, and why public school teachers are such an easy target for politicians and media pundits. Teachers are the only ones in the education system who put their work on the line in full view of the public.

I have talked to a number of people in the education community about BRIDGE, and they view Millar's proposal anywhere from impractical to perhaps doable, but only with a lot of changes. Not exactly a groundswell of support from the entrenched education establishment -- and not surprising.

Millar admits that BRIDGE is revolutionary and controversial, but says it is absolutely necessary if we are to achieve higher graduation rates and stem the dropout rate in Georgia. He says we must get teachers, administrators, counselors, parents and taxpayers to understand that (a) everybody doesn't have to, nor should, go to college, and (b) learning job skills is the best alternative; dropping out is not.
HB 905 may or may not be the answer to our dropout problem, but I don't see anything better on the horizon. Give Rep. Fran Millar an "A" for effort. At least he is trying.

Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Jan. 26, 2008. 



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