MARQUETTE - The struggle of Tammy Bradley's son Justin Fassbender started in sixth grade. After years of falling behind and losing interest in school, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, he entered high school but wasn't prepared to be there. He got in trouble with the law, got kicked out of school, and ended up in a youth home.
"I think we knew every year, we should hold him back a grade, but you don't want to do that," said stepfather Dave Bradley. "You keep hoping he'll come around."
The Bradleys testified at Thursday night's Michigan Education Association hearing on Upper Peninsula dropouts, held at Ishpeming High School. They were among people attending to voice their concerns with high dropout rates in the state and the U.P.
Jane Beyer of Ishpeming testifies at the Michigan Education Association hearing on Upper Peninsula dropouts at Ishpeming High School Thursday. (Journal photo by Miriam Moeller)
Peggy McLellan of the MEA; Jack Kresnak of Michigan's Children; Charter School Outreach Coordinator Sean O'Donnell; and Steven Peffers, superintendent of Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency, were on the panel. They listened to people's dropout stories and suggestions to address the dropout problem.
According to the Center for Educational Performance and Information, 9.2 percent (or 83) of approximately 900 students in the MARESA school district dropped out of school in 2007.
"We talk about a crisis that has an impact on every one of us here," said Kresnak. "We're here today to act because one dropout is too many."
Statewide, about 20,000 Michigan students drop out of school every year. Gary Walker, Marquette County prosecuting attorney, said in his testimony often juvenile dropouts end up in the criminal system, costing the state money.
"High school dropouts are more likely to turn to crime," he said. "I do the arraignments and sentences in Marquette. The bulk of these young people don't have a high school diploma."
In the Bradleys' case, they found a solution: the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy in Battle Creek, which offers a 17 1/2 month government-funded program for teenagers between the ages of 16-18, helping students to pass their General Educational Development exam and prepare for the future. Justin, now 16, enrolled in the program last April.
"I think it's going to save his life," Dave Bradley said. "Since that time he has excelled in this program. It's amazing (to see) the changes since April."
He added that Justin now is a grade A student, and he is working on college applications.
The couple said the fault of Justin's troubles does not solely rest on the school system's shoulders.
"We're at fault as much as the school system," Dave Bradley said.
Ishpeming resident Jane Beyer testified about her son Sam, who struggled through school with a language processing and attention deficit disorder and also ended up in the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy.
Beyer, along with several other people, said the avoidance of dropouts needs to be addressed as early as elementary school.
"We need to start with early intervention," she said.
The last person to testify was Connie Hemmila of Sands Township.
"Before I graduated high school, my parents were divorced," Hemmila said. "I went to 22 different schools before graduating high school."
Hemmila, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, said she is one of the statistics the panel and the speakers had been discussing.
For instance, the dropout rate among American Indians is higher than among other students.
Hemmila said she ended up receiving her GED and a degree from Northern Michigan University - all while being a teenaged mother, getting married at the age of 15, and being the oldest of nine children.
"It's the community that helps," she said about her success. "It's that teacher that cares. It's alternative schools. Community is important."
Hemmila, now in her 40s, works with juveniles in the court system and she sees dropout cases every day.
Representatives from several youth organization such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters and Great Lakes Center For Youth Development also spoke at the forum.
At the end of the forum, the panelists summarized what they had learned from the testimonies.
"Students are more likely to stay engaged in an educational program if they have a caring adult," O'Donnell said.
Kresnak observed that there needs to be a program for children at risk that starts early in the child's life and follows it throughout its years in school.
Peffers said positive role models are important and McLellan said parents play a role in this matter as well.
The panelists' findings will be presented to political leaders at Lansing's Michigan Dropout Prevention Leadership Summit in October. For more information, go to www.mea.org/dropouts.