For nearly a week, the Casper Star-Tribune tackled the story of graduation and Wyoming’s relatively high dropout rate.
The series spotlighted several key aspects of graduation and dropouts, including plentiful, decent-paying jobs; paradoxically, poverty; substance abuse; teen pregnancy; and the culture of education in general.
There is a problem. And the temptation is to say that problem is simply that graduation rates are too low — and leave it at that.
But that’s not the real problem.
Leaders, educators and most residents look at the sagging graduation numbers and sigh. It’s a problem, we all say, but it’s always seemed the graduation rates were low.
The problem is that it’s not enough of a problem.
Wyoming hasn’t seemed to pay much of a price for the lack of education. The energy industry has always been willing to take dropouts — as long as they can do the back-breaking, ‘round-the-clock work. Until they can’t anymore.
The truth is that it will take more than throwing obscene amounts of money at the problem. And while we respect that leaders say Wyoming’s graduation is unacceptable, to some degree they’re not the ones in need of education or graduation.
The problem boils down to this: As long as parents and friends don’t insist and preach the value of education, students will continue to drop out at an above-average rate. Simply put, children live what they learn.
Sadly, Wyoming may not be equipping the next generation well enough. Parents, who undoubtedly want better for their children, have to make sure their children’s grades are not falling. They have to push them to stay in school. They have reinforce the message that a college education, or even some technical training after high school, will mean higher paychecks throughout life — not just good pay now.
We don’t hear leaders and parents talk enough about the value of school. We can’t necessarily blame students for thinking there’s big money to be made by dropping out. In many cases, there are jobs that pay well because of the physical demands and the number of hours. But there’s only so many years a body can endure tough physical labor. And, there’s a definite ceiling to earning potential. But how would a 16-year-old or 17-year-old know that?
That’s why the problem is bigger than just a seemingly dysfunctional state education system. In many respects, the issue isn’t just one for lawmakers or local school boards.
The issue is one for communities.
First, school districts across the state must continue to build programs which target at-risk students whose talents may be curbed by learning disabilities or those who fit well with non-traditional programs. Going to work in the oilfield or mines is good work — but all workers should have education to lean back upon.
Secondly, communities have to focus on parents. We have to emphasize the importance of learning and school at home. Whether that’s encouraging reading habits at home, or whether it’s pushing children for more academic success, leaders can’t just assume it’s an individual choice or that the school districts will be able to convince students they should stay in school.
Third, Wyoming leaders must recognize that if we are to diversify our economy beyond energy, we must have strong schools. Strong schools with high academic achievement can be among the most powerful recruiting tools a community can have. And, competition for qualified, quality workers will continue to be an issue. So, if our work force can’t compete, Wyoming won’t be able to either. And that would be everyone’s problem.
If we want to solve the graduation gap, everyone must be invested in the solution. It’s not only the parents. It’s not just the teachers.
All of us.