Parents Are the Missing Ingredient in Dropout Prevention

Discussion leader Bill Fulton asked participants at the governor’s school dropout prevention summit to “imagine a Colorado education system where no one drops out.”

At this point, a solution to the state’s scandalously low high school graduation rate remains just that — a dream.The two-day dropout summit that concluded Thursday at Mountain Range High School in Westminster summed up the challenges just fine. What will be much more difficult in a state where at least three in 10 students don’t make it through high school is turning talking points into action, dreams into reality.

“Begin with pre-natal care through higher education or vocational training,” Fulton, an educator who runs Civic Canopy, a group that specializes in school issues, urged his audience. Imagine students who can read and write on grade level before being allowed to leave third grade. Imagine partnering schools with businesses. Imagine dealing with racism and stereotypes that hurt minority students. Imagine believing all students — rich or poor — can learn with sufficient resources. Imagine tracking struggling students to address their problems when they first arise.

Imagine, imagine, imagine.

The goal outlined by Gov. Bill Ritter is to halve the state’s dropout rate by 2017. Yet for all the good intentions a huge wrench remains wedged in the teeth of the gear box.

Republican State Sen. Mike Kopp and Democratic State Sen. Ron Tupa both alluded to it in the summit’s final meeting between practitioners and policy makers.

“Nothing we do,” Kopp said, “is going to replace good strong families. If we had that, we wouldn’t be having the conversation we’ve had the last two days.”

Too many parents of dropouts “aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” added Tupa, acknowledging the need to increase spending on dropout prevention, but putting it in perspective. “A lot of these kids (who drop out) don’t have parents. (Public institutions) become the de facto parents. That costs money.”

Tupa told the summit that some money for dropout prevention exists because of Referendum C, which bailed out a starving state economy by temporarily suspending tax refunds required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. State Sen. Sue Windels said freezing tax rates in most of the state’s school systems will produce enough money to pay for expansion of kindergarten programs.

It was all good news for fixing the dropout problem. But it still dodged the nagging question of parental accountability without which so many dreams will continue to be figments of the imagination.

Ken Turner, the state’s deputy commissioner of education, hit on it partly when he offered this choice: “Are children a public asset or private property?”

In fact, they are both and neither. The health and education of kids determine the future of society, but children are no more indistinguishable stitches in the social fabric than they are common chattel penned in households. The village it takes to raise them has to include the kind of nurturing that only parents — biological or surrogate — provide.

The priority list that summit participants developed to cut the dropout rate never quite got to that.

The list asks for full funding of pre-school and kindergarten. It asks for achievement rather than social promotion. It calls for “marketing the value of education,” “home-school partnerships,” “business-school partnerships” and “decision-making bodies” that “reflect the communities they serve.”

If the parents in those communities are not educated, if they are too busy trying to grind out a living to pay attention to their kids, if they are too young and inexperienced to have made many decisions or if the choices they have made are not healthy for their sons and daughters, you’re right back where you started.

Turner was right when he said, “There are no heroic interventions in ninth grade.”

But so was Sonja Chapman, a “prevention specialist” in the Mapleton Public Schools. “As an educator,” she said, “I spend time on a daily basis with children from single-parent families, unhealthy families, parents who work more than one job.”

Across the auditorium another teacher chimed in: “The young people we’re talking about (dropping out) live incredibly complicated and unfair lives.”

Sadly, without nurturing parents, there is only so much the most well-intentioned public institutions can do for them.

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Jim Spencer

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