Man Hits Streets To Help Dropouts Overcome Odds
DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Tom Kershner jokes that his office is a beat-up white Jeep.
Portability is key for the man who has the “doglike task” of finding Dubuque’s dropouts, ages 16 to 21, and convincing them to enter alternative and/or post-secondary education.
Although he is based at the Northeast Iowa Community College Town Clock Center in Dubuque, the experienced youth coach and Navy special operations veteran rarely spends his time in the building.
“We don’t see him very often,” said Sue Stork, Town Clock Center director. “He is always out in the community with the students. He’s just relentless in his efforts to find those students and convince them that success is really a possibility ... a probability for them.”
With his cellphone by his side, Kershner can spend a day visiting several students in their homes, giving them rides to classes, monitoring them completing a test and receiving texts from them. He also connects with them on a personal level, taking them for coffee or lunch, speaking with their parents, listening to their problems and even helping with taxes.
“As long as it’s legal, I’m doing it,” Kershner said, adding he considers himself the students’ business agent. “Any obstacle in the way, we’re going to bulldoze through that thing.”
He tells students to believe in the power of words; to fight off the urge to speak negatively about themselves and positively take command of their lives and futures.
Without that dedication, Sean Thomas might never have obtained his high school diploma.
The 20-year-old who dropped out last year with four credits left to earn didn’t know who Kershner was until an official with his former school contacted him. Kershner and Thomas met in September.
“Most people wouldn’t talk to me. They don’t sit down and talk to me if I need help. They would just send me to different people and different people. But he actually communicated with me on a level that I understand,” Thomas said. “I appreciate everything.”
Kershner not only gave Thomas rides to and from classes and played basketball with him at the Dubuque Community Y for credit, but he also helped him get his Social Security card and driver’s license.
“Basically, Tom has been helping me with a lot of stuff lately. Besides the driver’s license and all that, little did he know he’s been helping me with my attitude,” Thomas said.
Thomas, who keeps in contact with Kershner, received his diploma on March 14.
In August, Kershner started his journey with Dubuque dropouts after the Re-engagement Center was formed with the Dubuque Community School District, NICC and Project HOPE.
“He’s got an edge and he’s got a sense of confidence of the street,” Stork said about Kershner. “He’s got a sort of magnetism that you can’t teach, you can’t train.”
Shirley Horstman, director of Student Services for the school district, said it’s the first time a full-time employee has worked for an extended time to reach out to students who have dropped out.
While the goal is to have students obtain a high school diploma, if they are over age and under-credited, the students will work with NICC to get their General Education Development, or GED, degree.
Within months of starting the position, Kershner exceeded the initial goal of re-engaging 25 percent of dropouts. Of the 176 2011-12 district dropouts, Kershner has been able to track down 89 and re-engage 73, or 41 percent, of the students back in their education.
Horstman said Kershner’s “failure is not an option” motto is exactly what the students need — someone who will not give up on them. Fifteen students have completed their GED and four have a high school diploma.
“Dropouts are completing their high school credentials and looking forward to a future with promise and opportunity,” Stork said.
That opportunity includes a chance to be more financially stable. Upon completion of a high school diploma or GED, the average hourly earnings of a person increases from $9.81 per hour to $13.66 per hour. The amount is $16.30 per hour with a post-secondary degree and $25.97 per hour with an advanced degree.
Every week, Kershner seems to re-engage even more students.
“It’s my art,” he said. “I’m good at it.”
Another re-engagement coach will probably be added next school year. Also, Kershner said a luncheon held in March to engage business community leaders went well.
The Re-engagement Center’s future seems bright.
“We wanted to make a positive impact on our community,” Horstman said.