Alaska editorial: We must do more to keep kids in school

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2008

Elizabeth Winkler, who dropped out of her Anchorage high school near the end of 10th grade, says she might have been more focused on school instead of friends if educators had helped her set goals.

Tina Michels-Hansen says she felt invisible, as if the teachers never saw her, when she attended school in Fairbanks her senior year. She had been a top student in Nome and returned there after a troubled semester in Fairbanks.

The experiences of these two young women, who both now help other at-risk students, add to the evidence piling up that there's so much more Alaska can and should do to prevent students from dropping out.

At 8 percent, Alaska's dropout rate was double the national average in the 2005-2006 school year.

We've noted that the Anchorage School District had improved its dropout rate from 6½ percent to 4 percent over four years through a focused effort, proving it can be done.

At a Senate committee field hearing earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, brought together experts - including Winkler and Michels-Hansen - who helped define the extent of the dropout problem here and across the nation, and offered thoughts on how to tackle it.

Top educators in this country have figured out in general how to keep students hooked on school, but it's up to individual states and districts to make it happen.

For example, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center, if a child's family is involved in her education, that strongly suggests she'll succeed.

Alaska districts need to do a better job of making families in different ethnic groups, such as Alaska Natives, feel welcome. As a group, Alaska Natives have among the highest dropout rates.

Another way to even the field: The national research has shown that high quality education in the pre-school years has a powerful effect, particularly in helping poor children and children with disabilities get ready for kindergarten.

Some in Alaska advocate state-run preschools for all children. At the very least, it seems we need to expand Head Start-type programs to all pre-schoolers at risk of school failure.

Students who have fallen behind may not actually drop out for several years. Students mostly drop out in grades eight through 10, at ages 15 to 17. But by then, they've been disengaging from school for a long time, says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, who testified at Murkowski's hearing.

Most of the kids who drop out never established a relationship with teachers or others from school, he said.

Where does that leave us?

It leaves Alaskans needing to do a lot more than we have done. We need to make sure small children are ready for school and that school-age kids stay engaged regardless of who they are and where they come from.

Larry LeDoux, the new state education commissioner, says goals set during a recent statewide education summit will lead to improvements across Alaska's educational system. They're aimed at improving graduation rates.

"If we do everything right, kids will be successful," LeDoux said this week. Making that happen is quite a challenge, but one the state is right to tackle. The experts know what needs to be done. The state's job is to make sure Alaska schools do it.

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