COLUMBIA, S.C. - Isaia Ballesteros wishes he hadn't dropped out of high school. The 17-year-old wishes he'd realized the importance of his education before he started hanging around the wrong people, skipping school and doing drugs.
"It is a necessity. It is your future," said Ballesteros, who earned his GED in October after dropping out in the spring and later enrolling in the state National Guard's Youth Challenge Program. "There's nothing out there if you don't have an education."
Ballesteros, who will graduate from the program later this month, is among the roughly 8,100 students in South Carolina who drop out of school each year, according to the state Education Department. Nationwide, 7,000 students drop out every day, according to the youth advocacy group America's Promise Alliance - a statistic that shocked the North Augusta teen.
On Tuesday, he was among the nearly 900 educators, students, business and nonprofit leaders from across South Carolina who gathered in Columbia to discuss ways to keep students in school and increase the state's graduation rate, now among the worst in the nation as measured by several national groups.
The summit was part of a nationwide effort to increase awareness and find solutions for America's dropout problem. Officially the launch of the state's "Graduation Matters" campaign, the event is among 100 summits to be held across the country by 2010, sponsored by the Washington-based collaborative America's Promise Alliance, which Gen. Colin Powell founded.
The summit included nearly 200 students, from school leaders to recent dropouts, who brainstormed separately.
An Army Jr. ROTC cadet, 1st Lt. John Hall of Marlboro County High School, suggested schools do away with out-of-school suspension and find another way to discipline them. Students sent home aren't learning, the teen said.
Various reports have ranked South Carolina's on-time graduation rate as among the nation's lowest. Under a national standard for calculating graduation rates - which only 16 states currently use - 73.3 percent of South Carolina's students earn a diploma in four years, which mirrors the national average.
It's a growing crisis that threatens the future of the state and nation, not just individual students' quality of life, said state Superintendent Jim Rex. While people have long known there's a dropout problem, he said, many don't understand how it affects them.
Focusing on the economic toll of dropouts, he noted that national studies show they are more likely to be on welfare, be teen parents, lack health insurance and end up behind bars. And dropouts will earn a lifetime of smaller paychecks than their peers who graduated. That's why businesses, faith-based groups, and government leaders must work together, he said.
"The economic penalties we're all paying for is staggering," Rex said. "What we do with them and for them will shape what the state looks like for the next 50 years."
Kenneth Westberry II, a senior and student body president at Irmo High, said more than a dozen of his friends have dropped out already, mostly because they wanted the short-term reward of an immediate job and paycheck. They realize only later - after going to work, getting taxes taken out of their paychecks, and trying to live on their own - how little it really is, he said.
"Students who are struggling need the money now," he said, adding they don't understand the importance of education on their future earnings.
Groups sessions included identifying potential dropouts early, mentoring and graduation coaches.
The launch of the "Graduation Matters" campaign did not include a clear-cut plan. Instead, the summit was designed to galvanize attendees to go back to their communities and put together a local plan for attacking the problem, Rex said. He hopes to make the summit a yearly event.
Educators can't change the dropout rate by themselves, said Sheila Gallagher, a teacher at Williams Middle in Florence and president of the state Education Association. Schools need more volunteers to tutor and mentor students, she said.
"If we don't get a handle on this, it's scary to think about it," said Cynthia Hulon, a career specialist at Dillon 2.
A $10,000 grant from America's Promise Alliance paid for the summit. A $25,000 grant from AT&T and a $20,000 grant from State Farm Insurance, announced Tuesday, will help fund local initiatives.