Dropping out of high school isn't the answer. Too often it leads to crime, joblessness and despair.
To combat that, UC Merced students are sharing their stories of academic success, sometimes in the face of their own difficult circumstances, in hopes of convincing local kids to stay in school.
These mentors are convinced their message is getting through. And that's good news in an area where the dropout rate exceeds the statewide levels. Merced County had about 78 percent of its students graduate on time in 2010, recording 729 dropouts, compared to the statewide rate of 84 percent, according to the California Department of Education.
Patricia Paredes, a senior at UC Merced, joined several other students to design the outreach program about a year ago after the university was approached about addressing high school dropout rates in Merced County.
"Going into the classrooms, not only do you see the magic that happens while you're presenting to the students, but you see the transformation," said Paredes, a San Jose native who grew up surrounded by gang violence.
"Sharing our stories, my struggles, my challenges, my barriers and how I've become successful -- I share this with students so they know they too can achieve a high school diploma; they too can be successful."
Local officials on Friday offered enthusiastic support the program, dubbed Merced County Project 10%.
It was inspired, in part, by a 2004 UC Berkeley study that concluded that a 10 percent increase in graduation rates would result in a roughly 20 percent reduction in murder and assault crimes.
And the young students the program targets are surprisingly aware of the challenges they will face as they try to make their way through high school and into college, said Noel Gomez, a UC Merced sen-ior.
"It's amazing the things that these middle school students ask us," said Gomez, who also helped create the program.
"They want to know, 'How do I pay for college? My dad, my mom has student loans. Am I going to have student loans?' It's just amazing the type of connections we make with these students," he said.
Those connections drew praise from several officials Friday.
"We have formed a partnership with UC Merced," said Larry Morse, Merced County district attorney, "in which UC Merced students, many of whom come from challenging circumstances, go into our middle-school classrooms, tell their own personal stories."
By explaining the life-long benefits of graduating from high school, Morse said "They are essentially telling those middle-school students, 'If we can do this, you can do this.' "
As prosecutors, educators and community leaders, Morse said he and his colleagues are aware of the sobering statistics connecting dropouts with crime.
"What we were really looking for was an innovative way to get this message to kids," said Morse, who approached the university about developing some type of stay-in-school program.
About a dozen UC Merced students have volunteered to go into middle school classrooms. They will talk to students about the value and challenges of completing high school, particularly in the face of socioeconomic disadvantages.
The program has identified elementary school as the most effective time to start reaching out to students who are beginning to disengage from the education system.
"I welcome any attempt to help reduce the high, high school dropout rate," said Steve Gomes, Merced County Superintendent of Schools.
"And the evidence points to middle school as a key, pivotal point in a young person's life. We know that the eighth grade is very crucial to preventing dropouts. Therefore, I believe we're in the right place with the right message," Gomes said.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.