EDUCATION MATTERS:

The subject of high school dropouts was examined a while back in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. The focus of this particular article was all about the consequences of kids leaving school — increased health costs, welfare dependency, lower income, increased rates of violent crime and even shorter life spans (no great secret that the last two are connected).

Police departments in areas (mostly urban) of high dropout rates are beginning to partner with schools in an attempt to keep kids from dropping out. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca talks about the many dropouts (close to 50%) in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Many of them are going to be in L.A. city jails as adults,” he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared an “urgent need to act now” to keep students from dropping out.

What we really need to do is find out why more and more of our children are leaving school early. That question will bring forth a variety of answers ranging from “experts in the field” to casual observers. My experience places me somewhere in between, although I’m always leery of self-proclaimed “experts” who render their opinions from ivory towers or considerable distances from the front lines of teaching.

Before writing this, I consulted some of the real experts — the kids I teach. If you want to know why a substantial number of our students in this state, and across the country, feel disengaged from their schools, ask them. And ask others who haven’t (and likely won’t) drop out whether they understand, perhaps even empathize, with their classmates who do make that decision.

They tell me in increasing numbers that school is boring and irrelevant. I tell them that they are not original in that observation. What generation of teenagers hasn’t thought that?

But what kept more kids in school in previous years? Were homes, schools and communities more supportive? Were families more together? Were student bodies more homogeneous/less hyphenated? (All celebration of our diversity aside, group values are important too.)

That may need a little explanation.

For me, the word homogeneous is about people coming together, even if that means eventually reversing that hyphenated version of who they are and putting “American” first. Not to deny or even lessen the importance of where they came from but more to emphasize that we’re all here together, now. Whatever we can do to get these kids to embrace each other as human beings first and foremost, and place somewhere way, way on the back burner all of the surface characteristics that detract from, more than define us as human beings — I’m for encouraging that.

Will kids stay in school longer if there is more unity than diversity on the campuses that they attend? It’s an interesting thought. I’m inclined to say yes.

There is absolutely no question in my mind that the present effort to herd teachers all in the same direction, keep them all on the same page and treat students more as statistics than individuals accounts for more and more kids dropping out before completing their 12 years of public education.

I’m for teachers who make the effort to see their pupils as individuals in spite of all the efforts by our state and the administrative hierarchy attached to it, to lump them together into normative assessments. I’m for teachers who retain their passion for their subject, who can tell the difference between an engaged learner and a bored student, who are open to creativity and spontaneity and who kindle a desire to learn for its own sake.

A letter this week on the Glendale News-Press Community Forum page said it much better. Steven Kamajian writes, “The art of teaching is a calling, and if well done it will open the door to all of the other arts. If done poorly via state mandate, it will close the door to all the other arts.”

Schools are supposed to open doors, and parents are supposed to be equal partners in that endeavor. The present dropout problem will not improve unless and until that partnership is better forged. Any approach to a solution involves a commitment from the parents. Children who get a good start in life and are supported and encouraged along the way will likely stay in school.

And for those who don’t get such a great start, we who are entrusted with their education should be on the lookout for disengaged youngsters early on in their education. To intervene in their lives and provide a more solid foundation is part of that calling that Kamajian refers to. When we stop dealing with kids in the aggregate and focus more on the individual, more of us in the profession will be equal to such tasks.


 DAN KIMBER is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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