When Courtnie Ochs had to repeat ninth grade for the third time, she just stopped going to school.
She said repeated absences and relocation because of court probation for truancy violations prevented her from earning course credits.
"School wasn't fun for me," said Courtnie, a 17-year-old from Garden City. "The only thing for me to do is get into trouble" outside of school.
But two years later — with the help of her probation officer — she is prepared to take the GED exam.
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Courtnie is now telling her story to prevent other students from dropping out.
"It ruined everything," she said. "People look at you different. If you don't finish school, they don't think you can finish anything."
She spoke with more than 300 fellow students, community leaders, school administrators and parents at Wichita State University on Tuesday in a summit to develop ways to keep children in school.
The Kansas DropINs program is part of a nationwide dropout prevention campaign by the America's Promise Alliance, which was founded by Colin Powell, an Army general who served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.
Graduating from high school is becoming more necessary not only in the lives of teens but also to the strength of a community's economy, according to the alliance.
The loss of the lifetime earnings of the 3,641 students who didn't graduate from Kansas high schools in the class of 2007 is estimated at $964 million, said Jessica Noble, coordinator of Kansas DropINs.
Nearly 16 percent of Sedgwick County students dropped out before completing four years of high school in 2006-07, according to data from the Kansas State Department of Education.
That compares with about 10 percent statewide during the same four years.
An estimated 3 to 4 percent of Wichita's more than 20,000 middle and high school students drop out each year — almost double the state average — according education department data from the past five years. The statewide dropout rate of students in the 2007-08 school year was 1.67 percent.
Wichita public schools is the state's largest school district, with almost 70 percent of students coming from low-income families.
Noble said a survey of more than 500 teens statewide showed the top reasons for students dropping out included taking on a job, pregnancy and family issues.
"These are all life events," she said. "They're not only things happening inside schools."
The purpose of the statewide summit Tuesday was to raise awareness and help communities find ways to keep students in school, Noble said.
The participants will be invited back in a few months to a regional meeting, where they will form plans for carrying out strategies.
Noble said the Kansas DropINs group started this year with a $25,000 grant from America's Promise Alliance and $15,000 grant from State Farm Insurance.
Tuesday's summit helped West High School counselor Deborah Hinkel take the first step of getting to know one student better. She brought an outstanding student — junior Erica Ruvalcaba — to offer her student perspective at the conference.
Hinkel said they started out the day making compromises about what time Erica would be back at school.
"It's all about listening to each other," Hinkel said. "I'm thinking, 'How can I help this young lady?' I respect her."
"Respect," Erica echoed.