Emphasis on finishing high school, connection with life, career successNORTH BAY – The choices teenagers make, especially the decision to remain in school and graduate in four years, affect the rest of their lives and their work careers.

Across the nation, 7,000 teens become dropouts every school day. Statistics show that dropouts earn $260,000 less than high school grads over a lifetime, and many are likely to live in poverty, go to jail or prison and become jobless and homeless.

[caption id="attachment_27304" align="alignright" width="360" caption="Choices volunteers Bruce Okrepkie (right) and Steve Shira work with students."][/caption]

In Sonoma County, in 2008, the high school completion rate was 75 percent – one in four is not graduating with his or her class.

Seeing the effect of dropouts on the work force of tomorrow, Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, in partnership with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, launched a series of two-day workshops in 2009 designed to influence teens to stay in school, improve their quality of life and create more career options for themselves after graduation.

[caption id="attachment_27308" align="alignleft" width="108" caption="Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange"][/caption]

According to Robin Bartholow, Choices program director, self-discipline is the key to success.

“Choices was started 25 years ago in Seattle by a father who learned his 17-year-old son wanted to drop out.

“Today more than 180 Choices programs are underway in 40 states. The goal is to have young people consider their challenges as well as the alternatives, good and bad, and to anticipate the consequences of their actions today so they will make the right decisions impacting the long term.”

Five Santa Rosa high schools have already embraced Choices, starting with pilot projects in the ninth grade at Elsie Allen, Montgomery, Piner, Maria Carrillo and Santa Rosa. The Ridgway and Mesa alternative high schools in Santa Rosa will be involved this year.

About 97 percent of teachers and 85 percent of students surveyed appreciate the benefits of the program and approve of this approach.

In 2009, more than 1,800 Sonoma County students participated, and another 2,000 will go through the program this year. The plan is to expand the Choices program throughout Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties.

Workshop presenters – trained volunteer businessmen and women who give freely of their time – empower students to achieve academic success in pursuit of career and life aspirations by showing the connection between school and work during two fast-paced 50-minute sessions.

Emphasis is placed on establishing sound work ethics that will enable them to become good employees. Values such as showing up, sticking to the task and staying the course until completion are emphasized.

Students are also encouraged to set goals and manage their time and money. Money management exercises are conducted, and students are asked to compare cost of living realities with anticipated income if they graduate and if they don’t and have to rely on just a $9-an-hour wage.

“This program lives and dies on business and community leaders volunteering their time in the classroom. When these students see members of the community taking a personal interest in them, it makes a big difference,” said Bruce Okrepkie of insurance broker Woodruff-Sawyer & Co., Choices steering committee chairman and a volunteer presenter.

“Being a presenter is very rewarding.  We have 24 presenters now and plan to recruit 18 more this year.”

While these local programs have not been in effect for a full four-year high school cycle to see net results, there is already hard evidence of an increase of 9 percent in student engagement in school after the Choices program.

Engagement is a reliable indicator of on-time high school completion.

The economic disadvantages to society of having students not graduate are enormous.  Each dropout results in an estimated $209,000 in public assistance costs, and dropouts contribute about $60,000 less in federal and state income taxes per person than graduates over a lifetime.

For information about Choices, contact Ms. Bartholow at 707-542-9502, or email choices@ncbeonline.com. Also visit www.choices.org for more details about the nationwide program.