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Schools and the Community: Fostering Mutual Support

by Fred D. Baldwin

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Photo of former-Tennessee governor Don Sundquist a

Effective schools need strong communities, and strong communities need effective schools. That theme enriched the conference "Education and the Community: Fostering Mutual Support," sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) October 29–30, 2002, in Maryville, Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville.

"Everything has to work together to be successful," said then–Tennessee governor Don Sundquist, 2002 ARC states' co-chair, speaking to an audience of approximately 280, composed primarily of educators and staff members of economic development organizations. "You can't do just one piece of something."

Sundquist ticked off a list of factors contributing to a 60 percent reduction in the number of employable Tennessee adults on welfare in recent years: job growth, child care, health care, transportation. "All those things are important," he concluded, "but education . . . education is essential."

Jesse L. White Jr., then ARC federal co-chair, described how ARC has evolved from a grant-making agency once focused almost exclusively on building roads and "bricks-and-mortar" projects to a "learning system," reflected in the agency's strategic plan, where education is given top priority.

"Education and economic development used to be separate fiefdoms," White concluded, "but we've learned that you can't separate the two. We've formed a consensus on the necessity of making up for a hundred years of under-investment in our human capital. We can't join the global economy without that."

Both White and Sundquist kept their remarks brief, leaving most of the morning for a "town meeting" featuring comments by three speakers whose work includes both education and community development:

  • Jeffrey Finkle, C.Ec.D., president and CEO of the Council of Urban Economic Developers-International Economic Development Council and a former senior official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development;
  • Rachel B. Tompkins, Ed.D., president of the national nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust and previously active in education and workforce development in Ohio and West Virginia;
  • S. Anne Hancock, Ph.D., Region IV representative for the U.S. secretary of education, formerly a professor and administrator at Georgia Perimeter College.

The conference's keynote luncheon speaker was Carol H. Rasco, M.S., who began her career as an elementary school teacher and has served as a senior policy advisor for the U.S. secretary of education. She is now president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit organization committed to children's literacy.

Maintaining a Long-Term Perspective

Here are a few highlights from the "town meeting" speakers' remarks.

In the past, Finkle began, economic development could materialize without anyone's giving much thought to the educational level of a local workforce. Businesses would choose locations for branch plants based almost solely on access to raw materials or markets, and communities would compete on the basis of cheap labor. That time no longer exists, he said. "Many states," Finkle explained, "amassed war chests to attract businesses. They tried to figure out how much in taxes they could forego. But the key was an available, trained workforce. Businesses would have walked past the money to get that—workers with the right set of reading, science, and math skills to help them compete in a global economy."

Finkle emphasized that maintaining a long-term perspective is difficult but necessary because a community's investments in education rarely have much immediate payoff locally. Whatever the current high school graduation rate, if only 65 percent of adult workers in a community have diplomas, some potential new employers will look elsewhere. To ensure jobs for at least some of the "best and brightest" among recent graduates, communities must find ways to help existing companies grow.

Finkle also cautioned local leaders not to expect long-term planning from managers of branch plants with corporate headquarters elsewhere. "They're going to be in our communities for about 18 months," he said "and then move on. That's their career track. They're going to try to reduce costs and increase efficiencies and then move away to repeat that."

He challenged local leadership to be creative. "We push everyone toward a four-year [post-secondary] degree," he said. "We set up moot courts for lawyers, but we don't set up mock factory floors."

Creating "Places of Opportunity"

Tompkins, describing the relationship of education to economic development, made two specific points.

Her first point: state and local investments in education will not necessarily have an impact in the rural communities where they are made unless those communities have strategies for retaining educated people.

"I'm not going to make a simple argument," Tompkins said, "about the need to keep children down on the farm. I'm happy to have people leave, come back, and invite their friends to come back to West Virginia or rural Kentucky. Rural places have to be seen as places of opportunity, where there's a chance to do something. It's the challenges of West Virginia that keep me coming back—the chance to contribute something to a place that I love."

She described strategies employed by three communities, one outside Appalachia and two within it. They include a strategy in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, where a community college has forged strong links with local industry, and a Tennessee high school's joint study program with students in Bulgaria. She applauded "learning about your own place while getting the tools to succeed in any place."

Tompkins' second point: schools are not only places where children learn but are also in themselves major contributors to strong communities—as large employers, pools of human talent and potential leadership, and places where people meet.

"There's a significant amount of research," she said, "that when you close a school, the community goes downhill. If you're losing population, you can lose it faster by closing a school. If businesses are closing their doors, you can help them close faster by closing the school. Communities that have schools have higher incomes, less poverty, better housing, and more jobs."

Tompkins contended that the financial arguments for consolidating small rural schools are often superficial. For example, savings in administrative salaries may be replaced by increased transportation costs and other costs. And technology may enable school districts to provide remote access to resources previously available only to large schools.

"We can't save every little community school in every community," Tompkins concluded, "but we oughtn't be in a rush to close them."

Educating Every Child

Hancock described the key points of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, emphasizing the law's strong bipartisan support. "I've seen many reform movements come down the pike," she said. "This one is different. It's going to make this country different. The legislation passed and was funded. Some say that it's unrealistic to believe that every child can be educated. President Bush believes that it's a sacred duty of government. It's a moral challenge."

Hancock explained that "No Child Left Behind" is based on four principles: accountability, parental involvement in public education, local control of budgeting, and research-based evidence in teaching.

Accountability, she said, requires testing on foundation skills—reading, writing, and arithmetic. But schools and parents must also do more to foster personal qualities like self-management and responsibility. Local control means giving state and local school districts more flexibility in allocating their financial resources—for example, relaxing rules against commingling funds from different sources. The remaining challenge is to "use teaching methods that we know will work."

"This law is powerful," Hancock concluded, "but it's only a framework for change. The alternatives to leaving no child behind are unacceptable. If a child is not ready for the workforce in our communities, we'll pay in other ways. It'll not be easy, but we can educate every child in America."

Governor Sundquist joined actively in a question-and-answer session following the panelists' remarks. Two examples of questions and responses follow.

Q: What are some of the things we can do to better prepare young people for college and the workforce?

A: All respondents agreed that starting early is crucial, requiring significant investments in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. Tompkins urged more health care and education for young mothers and wiser use of summer months—not a 12-month school year but enrichment activities for low-income children. Sundquist added that the costs of post-secondary remedial courses in English and math could be passed back to the high schools that had allowed students to graduate without basic skills.

Q: How can we encourage educators to recognize their role in economic development?

A: Responses generally focused on broadening professional development requirements. Sundquist, noting that severe teacher shortages are on the horizon, added that states must be willing to allow individuals with skills acquired by experience in the private sector to get teaching licenses more quickly.

From Learning to Read, to Reading to Learn

Reading Is Fundamental president and CEO Carol Rasco, the conference luncheon speaker, began with a reminder that for 20 years the reading scores of children have remained essentially the same, with 37 percent of American fourth-graders reading below grade level. That statistic, she noted, masks far grimmer ones for children of low-income families. Moreover, children with reading difficulties early in life tend to fall further behind.

"From birth to fourth grade," she said, "we're working mostly on learning how to read. After that it's reading to learn. We know that children who are struggling in the first grade are still struggling later."

Rasco cited research comparing the vocabulary size of children in families at significantly different income levels. The low-income children recognized about 3,000 words, compared with about 20,000 words for their more fortunate counterparts. It would require about 41 hours a week of rich language exposure over several years to bridge that gap, Rasco said—almost exactly the equivalent of a standard work-week. Since more mothers are working, that suggests that basic training for child-care workers would be one of the most cost-effective investments possible.

"Hairdressers in 40 states," Rasco said, "are required to have more than a thousand hours of training. Yet until recently 39 states and the District of Columbia required no certification or training of child-care workers. Those who care for our children may be nice people who love children, but they haven't been given the tools to give children what they need."

Rasco also zeroed in on learning losses that occur during summer months. Research indicates that children who enter first grade with low levels of achievement at least do not fall further behind during the school year. That is, even if they do not catch up with their classmates, the gap does not widen. By the end of the fifth grade, however, the gap has widened by over a year, a new achievement deficit that almost exactly equals the cumulative total of intervening summer months.

"This doesn't mean," Rasco said, "that children should go to school year-round. But the children of upper middle class families had other rich experiences—camps, vacations, and other contacts that kept their minds active and learning. We have to find a way to give lower-income children the same opportunities."

Rasco challenged conference participants to find ways to help parents recognize the central importance of reading and to incorporate reading into more community activities. Libraries need support for reading programs, but so may summer recreational programs (for example, public swimming, playground activities, or Little League softball). Program sponsors should be held accountable for providing a few minutes of reading experience before and after play or practice periods. In short, Rasco concluded, schools and teachers cannot be effective without active help from community-based allies.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.