27 October 2005

Griego Gets It.

Tina Griego's column today in the Rocky does an excellent job of reminding us of a serious problem with Denver's schools that doesn't take rocket science to fix, the fact that students often simply do not show up.

Of all the stories I did last school year out of North High School, the piece on how many students were skipping class probably caused the most jaws to drop. A single student missed 106 classes? Five hundred of 1,400 students missing at least one class a day?! . . . .It's a no-brainer. Ask any teacher looking at an attendance log full of missing students and she'll say: "I can't teach them if they're not here." If students are not in class, they are falling further behind. If they fall far enough behind, they don't go back. It's off to the land of the low-skills worker, minimum wages and long bus rides and blank-faced employers who say, "what do you mean exactly by 'benefits?' " That's a typical scenario. Worst-case involves a jail cell. . . . the "typical" cost to taxpayers of a single dropout in Denver County is roughly $215,000. . . . Truancy is a predictor to all kinds of social ills, beginning with dropping out of school. . . . Consider, for example, the number of students who enter high school below grade level. They can't do the work. What do we do? Stick them in a crowded room with other lagging students and assign the class of 35 to an inexperienced teacher for a two-hour period. Gee, I don't know why anyone would skip class.

Go outside the school into the homes, to the root. Here you are likely to find problems related to transportation, substance abuse, family stability, mental health. Here you may find an environment that not only does not support the child who wants an education, but denigrates him, calls him a sell-out, a schoolboy.

Studies - you could pave I-25 from Cheyenne to Raton with all the studies - show that truancy is more prevalent among boys, minorities, urban youth, low-income families, children living with one parent, children from large families and children whose parents never finished high school.

One of the baffling things about truancy is that after all the research, after demonstrable results in some schools and cities, it remains low on most community priority lists. It's puzzling in the same way that cutting funding for juvenile diversion programs and mental health treatment and prenatal care is puzzling. We know the long-term payoff will cover the short-term costs and yet, little changes.

School truant officers and social workers have fallen beneath the budget ax. Every year Denver courts devote fewer days to truancy hearings because their budgets have shrunk. We do what we have long done - import college grads from other states and boast about how well-educated we are.

While not every social problem can be solved, we have an obligation as a community, to deal with the disasters that are highly predictable and waiting to happen. Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy not just because of the loss of life in this disaster, but because we knew for years that this was going to happen some day and failed to take proper efforts to prepare. Truant kids are another disaster waiting to happen. Kids who miss school on a regular basis without a good reason are a disaster waiting to happen. Yet, we don't intervene until after the damage has actually been done.

For every BTK serial killer who is a prominent middle class leader in his community, there are thousands of murderers, rapists, robbers and burglars who have been on the yearbook's "most likely to screw up in life" list for years or even decades before somebody actually got seriously hurt by their actions. How many people who reach the penalty phase of a capital murder case haven't been abused, dropped out of school and lived lives with long rap sheets and mental impairment?

This doesn't mean that we have to give people who have had a rough time in life the scarlet letter treatment or criminalize having parents who don't always manage to confirm that their kids are in school. Parents are often as frustrated as anyone else. But, it does mean that when a kid is screwing up or has a history of abuse, that society needs to intervene and try to break the cycle. The phrase "at risk" kids has become a cliche and, at times, a code word, but the concept can be meaningful. We can know with more accuracy than we would like to admit who is at risk of getting into trouble down the road, and we ought to intervene early to prevent it.

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