Guest column: Filling the K-12 Education Gap

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The Daily News article about state rankings of public schools shows the Collier County school ratings to be unsatisfactory by any reasonable expectation.

This will not surprise long-term observers of our schools since little has changed in the approach to student achievement. Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) opponents will simply dismiss the rankings. Others will merely seek out scapegoats. Then all will continue as unconcerned as ever.

Mercifully, some students are taking advanced courses for which all involved should be complemented.

The report observes that the poorer performing schools have much higher rates of students on free and reduced price meals than the higher performing ones. As these disadvantaged students tend to be the poorer performers, the school system will continue to perform unsatisfactorily until meaningful efforts are aggressively made to close the advantage/disadvantage gap.

The gap has been long observed yet despite its significance for charting progress, societal prejudices have counseled inaction. Disadvantaged students are largely non-white, socioeconomically poor with parental/family involvement in education less than ideally desirable. The resulting society conclusion is that these students are innately cognitively challenged; i.e., they are dumb and their parents are uninterested so they should be left to drift.

This is tough language, but it is high time to confront Collier County with this destructive prejudice.

The notion of racial cognitive inferiority is not worth the effort to pursue. Direct parental/family contribution tends to be inadequate, not because of indifference or irresponsibility, but mainly because of inability — through virtual illiteracy and or plain lack of time resulting from necessary long hours of — and at — work. As this condition is self-perpetuating, society can benefit much from removing the gap.

My loving parents with little education could help equally little with my schoolwork. Thanks to kind teachers and a system with after-school programs, I eventually earned degrees from a world-renowned college. Two ensuing generations of Cachos, and hopefully society, have benefited. Low education and skills levels breed unemployment, unemployability, low productivity and crime, all of which are socially and economically damaging.

What then should be done to eliminate the gap and raise rankings on a continuing basis? Start with setting performance goals (outcomes) consistent with the improvements expected. The quality and amount of resources — programs, teachers, administrators, plant, and equipment must similarly be geared to the same purpose. Encourage community partnership through appropriate communication of the School Board's intentions and activities.

The unreadiness of some 40 percent of the entrants into kindergarten unnecessarily burdens the K-12 system and contributes to dropouts and low graduation rates. Disadvantaged children tend to feature among the unready. Raising the qualification of all pre-K teachers to the four-year degree as originally intended, would markedly improve the situation.

Countries with demonstrated superior high school outcomes to ours all have a longer school year/hours. This is an acknowledged contributor to their performance. Perhaps it is time we turn to the "year-round" school system. Among other things, it would remove the problem of the disadvantaged who for lack of summer enrichment tend to forget what they were taught in the preceding semester, thereby having to start the new school year thoroughly unprepared. The "year-round" system is well known and is being rather timidly tried in our county.

The block schedule, popular with all concerned, was discontinued for budget reasons despite its academic pluses. It needs to be reinstated.

A school system with a high percentage of disadvantaged students under serves its students with a ratio of 400-odd students per councilor in which councilor and student hardly meet. Significantly reducing the ratio should be a part of any improvement effort.

Disadvantaged parents who should be their natural partners tend to be in awe of teachers and schools for obvious reasons. Many benefits would accrue by breaking the ice through say, a special effort co-opting the collaboration of the School Advisory Council and the Parent Teacher Association.

The objective here is to highlight the imperative for overdue special improvements in our schools' outcomes, the role of special attention to the education of the disadvantaged in the overall program and to put students and the attainment of targeted outcomes at the center of our planning and operations.

Dare we expect our new superintendent, Kamela Patton, who is results-oriented, and a School Board knowledgeable about K-12 education, to deliver?

Cacho, retired from the World Bank, is a long-standing mentor, adviser and promoter for Collier County public education.

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