‘When our children fail, we are all at fault’

Jun. 06, 2014 @ 08:02 AM

Many of you will recognize this quote from the late 1990s: “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” 

Ann Denlinger, then superintendent of Durham Public Schools, used these words to mobilize the community around a common goal -- that all students would read proficiently by the end of third grade.

I wrote an op-ed in 2000 advocating support for that goal. DPS drafted a covenant that was signed by dozens of stakeholders. Durham was abuzz with “the main thing” -- and yet consider where we are now.

Only 34 percent of Durham’s third-grade students were reading at or above grade level at the end of the 2012-13 school year. This summer, hundreds of them are expected to attend remediation camps mandated by the statewide Read to Achieve legislation.

I’m writing to issue a call to action. This challenge is too large for any one parent, teacher or school, and it requires more than signatures on a piece of paper. It will take the combined, coordinated and sustained effort of an entire community to give our children the rich education they deserve.

To paraphrase singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell’s wonderful song, “Both Sides Now,” I have seen the consequences of inaction from both ends now -- at the pre-K and college levels.

When I was president of Durham Technical Community College, we developed several levels of developmental courses to meet a serious challenge: Year after year, as many as 40 percent of our high-school graduates tested below grade level in reading, English and/or mathematics.

We knew these students would need extra help to master their course of study at Durham Tech. But as a result, we faced many disappointed and discouraged students.

In their minds, their high school diploma meant they were prepared for college-level work. It was a huge blow to learn they would have to spend up to three semesters doing remedial work that would not count toward their major. This was a harsh penalty for young people who had done everything expected of them.

But who was at fault? The school system? Their parents? The community?

When I became vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke, I developed another perspective. My office works closely with local elementary schools to meet their most pressing needs, and in my earliest conversations with principals, one need emerged time and again -- the large percentage of students entering kindergarten with little or no pre-school experience.

These students lacked critical kindergarten readiness behaviors and had not even begun to develop the requisite pre-reading skills. Just imagine their first educational experience on their first day of kindergarten, a day filled with frustration and lowered self-esteem.

If these students are not ready for kindergarten, who is at fault? We certainly can’t blame the schools anymore, if students arrive unprepared.

The simple answer is: When our children fail, we all are at fault.

We now have reached -- or maybe passed -- that critical point where collective action is necessary. Raising reading levels will require careful planning and close collaboration. All community stakeholders must abandon their individual agendas in favor of a broad-based approach that improves student reading proficiency.

We must realize that fixing one point on the educational continuum won’t make much of a difference. Our collective action mission must be to coordinate improvements at every stage of a DPS student’s educational continuum, from pre-school through high school, to ensure students’ long-term success and our own community’s health and prosperity.

So, what can we do now?

Sign up to volunteer this summer at a DPS reading camp. Adopt a public school and become a tutor and mentor. And in the coming year, as we create more opportunities to convene around this common mission, be ready to play your part.

Phail Wynn Jr. is vice president for durham and regional affairs at Duke University.