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Some keys lie outside school

A bright spotlight currently shines on schools, locally and nationally, to increase public school graduation rates. Priority Spokane has made this their top priority; Bill Gates has clearly weighed in on the subject.

Thirty years ago, in an economy with a strong manufacturing base, we may have gotten away with students not finishing high school. No longer can a living-wage job be attained without a high school diploma. We must keep our kids in school.

Public education is one of the cornerstones of our society. We need to do everything possible to strengthen it, not tear it down.

Rarely are problems black or white or solutions simple.

Last year, a local middle school student whom I’ll call John had D’s and F’s and was placed in the behavioral classroom and could only attend school half time. The student/teacher ratio was 5 to 1.

When the Communities In Schools’ site coordinator began working with John, it became evident he was undernourished. Hunger was a significant factor in his ability to learn and behave appropriately. The site coordinator provided the student with food from Second Harvest Food Bank to assure a steady stream of nutrients during the school day, which supplemented the free lunch and breakfast the school district provided to John. Because of better and steady nutrition, within three months, John was attending school full time, using fewer school resources, and his grades had improved to A’s and B’s. If not for the food intervention, provided by the community, John was on his way to dropping out of school.

Perhaps we could point to changing teacher-tenure rules and say, “that is the solution and nothing else matters.” But that is simplistic. It ignores the complexities of our society and minimizes the challenges facing our young people.

It is true that teacher quality is the greatest in-school contributor to school success. It is false to state that this is the greatest contributor to school success. If John had a great teacher, but no food, he would continue to fail in the behavioral classroom. John’s life circumstances outside of the classroom matter.

The most significant contributor to a student’s success lies outside the classroom. As Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, wrote last month:

“(T)he idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement is false. … Teachers are the most important factor within schools. The same body of research by Hanushek shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds.”

We need to join together to focus on what our community can do outside the classroom to ensure better performance in the classroom.

If we just point to teachers and blame them, bright people are less likely to join the education profession, and it tells current teachers they are not good enough. Instead of laying blame at their feet, we should be acting on attracting future students to teach in the classroom. Let’s support teachers by ensuring that our kids come to school better prepared to learn.

Changes to the teacher tenure laws and certification may be needed, but these do not preclude that other factors matter even more. Such a complicated issue demands we treat it as such.

Gonzaga University recently published a study on what we, as a community, should be doing to ensure our middle school youth move on to high school completion. This report highlighted three areas: early warning, academic engagement and social support.

The evidence clearly states that the community support is necessary to move the needle. Ample evidence suggests that some changes are needed in the classroom – the schools, the state and federal governments are working on these priorities.

When a student exhibits clear risk factors associated with dropping out of school, he or she needs to be connected with resources that often exist outside the school system.

In the United States 20 percent of our children live in poverty. Tragically, we are now forced to cut support systems for children and families including health care, education and other vital human services. If we want students to finish school better prepared for a constructive life, the community must support them outside of the formal school system. We must not accept simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Ben Stuckart is executive director of Communities in Schools of Spokane County.


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