Schools like cars, it’s pay now or pay later – Christopher B. Sanford

Christopher B. Sanford
Christopher B. Sanford

Years ago a mechanic told me my car needed a front-end alignment.

“I can't afford the $7.50 this month,” I told him. (That price gives you a clue how long ago that was, back when I was younger and stupider.)

A couple of months later, I found the money – but now it was $62, for the alignment, plus new tie-rod ends, plus new tires to replace the two that had worn unevenly.

So I learned if something needs to be done, you can “pay me now or pay me later” – and if you pay later, it will cost a lot more.

Everything I’ve read about dropouts and early education tells me the same message. Dropouts represent a huge expense for society, an expense that could be avoided, mostly, if we put money into early education programs, starting at birth, so that every child enters school ready to learn. Most of the kids who drop out in high school were already having difficulties in elementary school – and before..

The human brain is wired to learn certain kinds of things at certain ages. We get good at language and thinking by being stimulated at the right age – generally in the first couple of years. Miss those key stages and you may never catch up. There are true stories of children who were raised by animals their first five or 10 years before being rescued; mostly they learned to talk some, but never well.

The moral: To solve the dropout problem, and lots of other social problems, we need to be sure every child gets a good start, from birth on. Anything else – crash programs to improve third-grade reading skills, for example – is remediation. Remediation is possible, but it is slow and expensive and only partially effective.

Which brings me to the recent school crisis: the proposed state takeover (now rejected) of Glenn and Lakewood elementary schools in Durham, both low-performing schools, by a for-profit firm. I saw two problems with this: 1) Such firms, in spite of their wonderful plans and promises, generally have a poor track record, improving schools little or not at all. 2) Whether remediation is designed and carried out by an outside firm or by the school system itself, it is still remediation, condemned to mediocre results. Though remediation needs to be done (we can't abandon all the kids already in the system), it is not enough.

Special zones need to be defined, basically the attendance area around each of these schools, and a program like East Durham Children's Initiative begun in each, working with preschoolers from birth to school entry, so that every child entering school is in fact ready. Several excellent programs – among them Durham’s Partnership for Children and Book Harvest – are doing this work already, but on a small scale. They need to grow, with programs focused on Glenn and Lakewood attendance areas.

Funding sources need to make a long-term commitment to these programs. Within five years, then, the schools should see lasting results. And Durham should be well on the way to improving low-performing schools.

Christopher B. Sanford kives in Durham.