Pen or Pencil: National Dropout Prevention Program Targets Arkansas Youth

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In Little Rock, Arkansas, on July 20, 2009, about 150 junior and senior high school students, many of them from nearby Pine Bluff, attended a day-long summit to discuss the importance of public service and education. Guest speakers at the event at the Peabody Hotel were actor Charles Dutton and Carlotta Walls Lanier, president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, among others. “We’re trying to help them make good choices, to give them some skills and some tools to not be disruptive in class but stay in school,” said Rev. Jesse Turner of Pine Bluff, executive director of Interested Citizens for Voter Registration, who brought 70 young people to the summit.

The summit, called “Pen or Pencil: Take a Stand to Keep Year Seat,” was sponsored by the National Alliance of Faith and Justice. The Pen or Pencil program uses history, civic education, social studies, and other academic standards and strategies to reduce dropouts and delinquency and promote mentoring, said Dr. Beautinia Robinson of Los Angeles. Robinson, director of the Southern California Foster Care Mentoring Network, said 11 staff attended the event. “Mentoring is so important,” she said, adding that her agency works with more than 19,000 youths in Los Angeles County.

Students attending the summit were trained on how to start Pen or Pencil programs in their schools by using student voice and other leadership skills to motivate youth to serve. Dutton, an actor who has starred in several movies and television shows, spoke of growing up as a teenager in Baltimore, where he dropped out of middle school and at 17 was convicted of manslaughter and spent several years in prison. “I do these kinds of things often with kids because I was one of them,” he told reporters later. “They wrote me off. The state of Maryland said I wasn’t going to amount to anything. I would be a defective, incorrigible, delinquent the rest of my life and I would spend the rest of my life inside of penitentiaries,” he said. “But I tricked them and those kids will have the chance to trick them as well.”

Students attending the event also were presented autographed copies of Silver Rights, the true story of a poor Mississippi family in the 1960s and the parents’ decision to send their children to what at the time was an all-white public school. Gloria Carter, one of the children, signed the books before they were given to the youths.

Pen or Pencil, a program of the National Alliance of Faith and Justice (NAFJ), a national United We Serve partner, is a social action and educational movement designed to influence the lives of youth at greatest risk of academic failure and potential incarceration. “Pen" is short for penitentiary; "Pencil" refers to education. To learn more, visit

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