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Saturday, March 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Mary Lee McJimsey: Education’s focus should be on students’ needs, not ‘system’

Mary Lee McJimsey

Public policy on education issues tends to draw the most attention when it’s about specific tests or how much educators are paid to do their job. But if our system is assessed through the eyes of a student, our policy priorities shift.

One in five Washington students will not graduate from high school. We owe it to our children, and to the social and economic health of our state, to pay more attention to what students need and less on what “the system” demands. There is good reason to believe we can get started today. The state legislature is currently considering “High School Success” policy proposals that are rooted in research and already working in districts that have been innovative enough to try something new. Also known as Freshman On-Track strategies, lawmakers should be urged to pass laws that implement these critical policies so they can begin working for Washington’s students.

It doesn’t take all the credentials of an educator to recognize when something works. I have a master’s degree in science education, am National Board certified in physics, and have been teaching since 2006, including courses in Advanced Placement calculus-based physics. While some students thrive from the beginning, many don’t. Worried parents should be advised the transition to high school is difficult and sometimes it takes students a year or two to adjust.

But freshman year is the one to really watch. It is during that time that the habits or attitudes that influence success in later years of high school take shape. The reality is that many kids fall too far behind in this first critical year to recover in time for graduation day. Like cascading dominoes, life without a high school diploma will influence everything that follows that critical moment when they walk through the doors of their high school for the first time. Freshman On-Track strategies are designed to intervene during this sensitive chapter to keep struggling students on track and in school. Counseling, a trusted mentor, peer advocates; all of these are mechanisms within Freshman On-Track programs that work to elevate student success.

My teaching assignments have varied and unlike other teachers who have a student one time for one year (or maybe just a semester) I often have students for two or three years and see them evolve from freshmen to seniors. I see a huge growth in maturity often coupled with more interest in one’s own future as the link between hard work and opportunity becomes more apparent. I see students move from a mindset that their success or failure rests on external forces out of their control to a studious “survivor” mode where they realize that they can promote their own accomplishments and prevent their own failures.

For most, the huge growth in maturity is coupled with more interest in their future and the teenage epiphany that indeed, there is a link between their hard work and a successful outcome. Previously egocentric 9th-graders begin to see through others’ eyes and have concern for their neighbors and the world by the time they’re juniors and seniors. They evolve into citizens of their community, of their country and beyond. But for kids who don’t graduate, the transition to being a more accountable, better prepared, responsible young adult is more challenging because they lack the fundamental building block represented by a diploma.

When we know we can do more to support kids, we must take action.

Graduating high school opens doors that are closed without that diploma. An education helps to lower societal barriers, opens doors in the job market, and empowers higher earning potential for a better “start” to life and future education and/or a specific career. Think of this: the high school diploma is the last chance for free education in our country. We should be fighting to pass High School Success legislation and support Freshman On-Track strategies that maximize this rare, shared benefit for Washington’s kids. These policies are ones we can and should implement immediately to improve outcomes for Washington’s students.

Mary Lee McJimsey has been with Spokane Public Schools for 13 years and has taught for 11 schools within the district.

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