Durham's Children Can Have a World-Class Education

For several years I have been studying Durham schools and exploring how they can be better. I’ve been a tutor, talked with educators and civic leaders, read books and articles, and studied websites of statistics.

Conclusions: 1) Too many dropouts. 2) Dropouts cost a lot. 3) The best fix is in earliest childhood. 4) The fix is cheaper than leaving things as they are.

Let’s talk about these points, to be covered in more detail in future columns about moving us toward World-Class Schools

Dropouts are a glaring problem. Dropouts are a cost and a loss to us all.

The cost(s): Most prison inmates are dropouts (so, fewer dropouts = fewer prisoners). Dropouts burden our social, legal, and medical systems. Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed and pay little in taxes. MDC says that over a lifetime, a dropout costs society $250,000. And the loss: we all lose when young people drop out instead of becoming productive citizens: engineers, med techs, teachers – and taxpayers.

Exact numbers are hard to pin down: school system figures suggest about 360 dropouts in Durham each year. But there might actually be over 1,000. Add to this “graduates” who leave school unprepared either for college or for a job. In a future article I’ll show where these numbers come from. But if they are anywhere near close, then every year Durham is incurring, in future costs, a debt of $250,000 times 1,000 dropouts – that’s $250,000,000.

The problem starts – mostly – in earliest childhood. Though some dropouts drop out because of current, immediate problems, many – perhaps most -- drop out because of an accumulation of problems that began, not in 11th or 10th grade, but at an early age. Teachers tell me that many children arrive at first grade not knowing basics like colors and counting and how to hold a book, not to mention social skills. Some excellent studies and programs have shown that programs for parents of newborns, and then continuing until school entry, have striking results: disadvantaged children in these programs do well in school, throughout school, and into adulthood. We can reduce dropouts (and benefit society) by working with small children, starting at birth.

Some numbers: About 4,000 babies are born in Durham County each year. About 2500 are disadvantaged, of whom perhaps 500 are currently receiving early childhood training each year, leaving about 2000 who probably need substantial training to become ready for school. So these 2,000 each year – a total of 10,000 children under age 5 -- need assistance. In class-size groupings of (say) 18, this is the equivalent of over 550 classes, requiring at least 550 teachers and as many aides. (Infants of course would not be in classes, but require staff making home visits to work with young and inexperienced parents.)

Documentation, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Follow-Up: We can’t be sure how great the need is or how good a job we are doing if we don’t have good data, data on all Durham kids, data on programs and services they get, data on what they do in school and after.

Trained and qualified staff are crucial to program success. If we want to hire – and keep – good people, we need to pay them well. (Is this a surprise?) But since there may be a large shortfall of qualified teachers and aides, we should look for promising – but less educated – candidates in disadvantaged communities, providing training programs, perhaps through Durham Tech. Paying them training stipends and then salaries could boost the educational and economic levels of whole communities. (Since almost the entire budget would be spent locally, the program would raise the economic levels of more than a thousand employees – all Durham residents. So a good early-education program would also be a great anti-poverty program.)

Expanding the program too fast can mean expensive mistakes in programming and hiring. Better to phase in the program as fast as feasible over a number of years, to find/train teachers and aides, to locate space, and to recruit children. If classes are opened when/where/as possible, then each early class can function as a kind of pilot project, allowing in-stream corrections and revised curriculum for future classes.

Funding: The program should seek appropriations, grants, and other types of funding from state and federal sources and from foundations and corporations. But much will need to come from Durham County property taxes (where a penny increase yields about $3.5 million). Annual tax increases of three cents could produce enough funding over a period of 7-10 years, a relatively painless way both to grow the program and pay for it.

Costs/Benefits: The program’s ultimate cost might be between $70M and $100M per year, offset by greater reductions in social service costs and huge gains in the local economy. More benefits: All children would learn more because teachers would not need to spend so much time on remedial work. There will be fewer dropouts. More young people will go to college. Others will be prepared for good jobs. Crime will decrease. Our community will be richer and healthier. And our taxes might go down.

Comments are appreciated and welcome. Please send to sanfordchristopher1636@gmail.com or send a letter to the editor to letters@heraldsun.com.