June 27, 2010 in City

Dropout rate battles disconnected

Lack of collaboration can be distracting, former chancellor says
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson photo

Austin DePaolo, Ryan Palmer and Christine Halbert, from left, gather signatures for the Children’s Investment Fund outside Huckleberry’s Natural Market on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

The Children’s Investment Fund levy, if approved, would raise $5 million annually by taxing Spokane property owners about 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Efforts are mounting to improve Spokane Public Schools’ dropout rate of nearly 29 percent.

The school district and its board, community members, elected officials, philanthropists and child advocates all have ideas they say will make a difference. Most changes are forthcoming, but some are already in the works.

A lot of people are trying to keep Spokane kids in school, but they aren’t always coordinating their efforts, leaving community leaders to consider what works best and what more can be done.

Is the surge to action necessary to make a change, or is it too much?

“There’s such a huge need, but it’s hard to know if efforts are being duplicated,” said Superintendent Nancy Stowell. “I think not everyone knows what efforts are going on. There needs to be more communication.”

A few examples of what’s under way:

•A push to put a tax levy on November’s ballot to support dropout prevention. The Children’s Investment Fund would help finance programs focused on early childhood education and intervention, child abuse prevention, after-school programs and mentoring – all proven to help kids stay in school.

If approved, the six-year levy would raise $5 million annually and would cost Spokane property owners about 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Supporters of the levy plan to turn in a stack of signatures – 13,000 – on Thursday.

•The results of a grant-funded study by Gonzaga University’s School of Education evaluating all elements of influences on middle school students is expected to be released this week.

•A Middle School Advisory Committee formed by the Spokane School Board will do a comprehensive review of issues confronting middle schools.

•Stowell convened her first meeting of the Graduation Task Force, comprising school district employees and school board member Bob Douthitt. Eventually, a few community members will be asked to join. The purpose is to look at the dropout rate from inside the district.

And there are dozens of independent organizations with ongoing programs to support teens, such as Boys & Girls Clubs, Pony Tales, Tincan and Project Hope.

But there is no one person or entity to track all local efforts to support kids.

On Friday, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner hosted an education roundtable that brought together people from business, nonprofits, education and government to discuss improving graduation rates and preparing students for college and careers. One of the goals was to share what is happening in all areas of the community to decrease the dropout rate.

“We have so many different initiatives that we are not collaborating, and it can be distracting,” said Gary Livingston, retired chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, who moderated the roundtable.

“All of the programs are necessary if we are going to move the dial,” said Ben Stuckart, spokesman for the Children’s Investment Fund and director of Communities in Schools.

“There’s no harm in duplicated efforts,” said Rocky Treppiedi, a school board member. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But should there be coordination, absolutely.” Educators and child advocates agree that the dropout rate has always been a concern. The issue has become critical because of the potential economic impact on the city, and on social services.

According to a recent nationwide study, if half the students who dropped out of the class of 2008 had graduated, they would have generated $4.1 billion more in wages and $536 million in state and local taxes nationally in one average year of their working lives.

“The school district cannot do this on its own,” Livingston said.

Austin DePaolo, a steering committee member for the Children’s Investment Fund, said the “biggest shift (in addressing the dropout rate) is that the city is stepping up and taking a role.”

Bringing everyone together on Friday was just the start, he said.

Councilman Steve Corker, who was at the education roundtable, said, “As a city councilman, I probably get more comments about the dropout rate than I do the (police) ombudsman. I’m hoping this is what moves us forward.”


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