Crime solution must include improving graduation rates

Published 9:11 am Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Virginia Department of Education just published its annual report on dropout rates in Virginia’s public schools. The Tidewater News highlighted our local situation.

VDOE’s report discloses that more than 17 percent of the students in Franklin and more than 11 percent of the students in Southampton County who started the ninth grade in 2004 dropped out of school during the next four school years.

The numbers are shocking: More than one of every 10 students in Southampton and almost one of every five students in Franklin dropped out. Dropping out is not smart — and it’s heartbreaking. These young people must now try to survive about 70 years of life in our extremely competitive economy without the benefits of a high school education. It’s already very difficult to find a job that pays a wage you can live on without a high school degree. Their future job prospects will be somewhere between grim and abysmal.

The issues that result in dropping out do not suddenly appear during high school. It is said that an attuned kindergarten teacher can accurately predict the children who will never graduate. VDOE’s report indicates that 42 percent of the students who dropped out were ninth- and 10th-graders aged 17 years old or older. For most of these kids, dropping out was merely the last chapter following years of underperformance, frustration and failure.

The high dropout rate should be deeply disturbing to all of us who care about our community. An exceedingly high percentage of scholastically unattached students and dropouts become involved with illicit drugs and crime, have children while they are still teenagers, and end up living in poverty. On a national basis — and I have no reason to think that our local experience differs — 90 percent of the youth in detention were chronically truant when they committed their crimes. Twenty-five percent of all expelled youth will be in youth corrections within one year of expulsion. One high school dropout can be expected to cost the public in excess of $200,000 over the course of his or her life, and each person who drops out of school and moves into a life of drugs and crime will end up costing society between $1.7 million and $2.3 million.

What a coincidence that VDOE’s dropout report came just days after Franklin’s chief of police gave a powerful, thoughtful presentation on March 23 to Franklin’s City Council about the increasing crime and increasing gang activity in Franklin. Chief Phil Hardison laid out his case for increasing the number of police officers in Franklin. In addition, however, he pointed out that vigorous law enforcement and strict punishment will not by itself effectively address the problems of gangs and crime. Chief Hardison commented that other steps must be taken to create alternatives and to make the alternatives to gangs and crime more attractive to young people.

I would put it this way: We cannot rely on incarceration alone to eradicate crime. In the United States of America today, already, one out of every 99 adults is incarcerated — a greater number of people and a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world. Incarceration already costs us approximately $24,000 per year per inmate.

Building further on Chief Hardison’s observation, I submit that gangs, crime, school dropouts and underperforming students are inexorably intertwined problems. We will not substantially reduce criminal and gang activity unless and until we improve educational outcomes and dramatically improve graduation rates. It’s no coincidence that 75 percent of the people incarcerated in Virginia do not have a high school education.

There is no easy, simple panacea for these related, pervasive, entrenched and multifaceted problems. Expanding recreational options and activities as some advocate would certainly be beneficial. I am convinced, however, that the most important piece of the solution is encouraging and enabling far more of our children to experience success in learning and in school so that they have and can then utilize the self-esteem, competencies and opportunities that flow from their education.

Among the things every parent owes his or her child is an education. Too many of our parents are failing in that duty. Good parents assist, encourage, cajole, discipline, demand and ensure that his and her child completes at least high school or a GED.

The dedicated, underpaid people who work in our schools and preschool programs accomplish much in difficult circumstances. They venture ever further beyond what heretofore constituted school. But there’s more to be done (1) in identifying as early as possible the students “at risk” and providing them educational and learning assistance, (2) in identifying those students who are not and will never be cognitively able to succeed academically and engaging them in vocational and workplace training, and (3) in getting all young people attached to and invested in their schools and educational programs.

There’s plenty of heavy lifting for all of us to do. We need to tell young people and show them by example that with determination and hard work every single person can attain a productive, responsible, meaningful and happy life. We must, of course, eliminate the barriers so that such lives are in fact and in truth available to every child.

Many children in our community are born into and live in excruciating poverty, in environments infested with drugs and crime, smothered in violence, ugliness, abuse and hopelessness, without even a single parent or family member who values and promotes education. Put me where they are and give me a hundred chances and I would not be able on my own to rise above their circumstances – and neither could you, and neither can they. These children did not create their circumstances, and they deserve a fair chance. We need to be smarter, more creative, more innovative and more determined in extending a helping hand.

I do not have the answers, but do I wonder. I wonder, for example, what would happen if a caring, capable adult mentor/”coach”/friend were teamed up with each and every “at risk” kindergarten and elementary student in Franklin and Southampton County and made a 12-year promise and commitment that — come what may — this child will succeed academically, this child will continue in school and graduate, this child will not be lost to either drugs or crime. I bet that then, finally, no child would be left behind. I believe our churches, civic clubs and citizens from every neighborhood would bring forth 300 such volunteers within 15 minutes of the ask.

After Chief Hardison’s presentation, Councilman Benny Burgess made a poignant comment about the crime problem that I will paraphrase and apply to the problems of academic failure and dropouts. If we cannot crack this nut in Franklin — given Franklin’s manageable size, the good will that exists among its citizens and the large numbers of caring and capable people who are Franklin — then there’s little hope for a Chicago or a Los Angeles. It does take a village to raise a child — and I bet the village of Franklin can do it.