Leader Blues

Friday, December 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Educator: schools can teach better

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The time to ensure that children will succeed in school and graduate is when they are toddlers and even earlier, not when they arrive in high school with bad attitudes, low expectations and few math, language or coping skills, an acclaimed educator told officials Wednesday from the Pulaski County Special School District and a dozen other districts with dismal graduation rates.
Pat Cooper, who earned his stripes as former superintendent of the McComb, Miss., School District, cites Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when he says that children who arrive in kindergarten healthy and fit with good vocabularies and resulting self-esteem will succeed in class and won’t often become discipline problems.

Cooper says he has years of data to support his contention.

“You’ve got to do everything for all children that you do for yours,” he said to the teachers, board members and administrators attending the state Education Department’s graduation summit at the Crown Plaza Conference Center in west Little Rock.

“If children don’t come ready to learn and don’t finish school, the public school system fails,” Cooper said.

That failure will cost more in crime, unemployment, and prison expenses than it would cost to educate youngsters and get them to school healthy, he said.

PCSSD has instituted some of Cooper’s recom mendations in a piecemeal fashion, according to Beverly Ruthven, assistant superintendent.

“We are not systematic,” she said Friday, “but bringing mental health (counselors into schools) was a step.”

“I particularly like (his contention) that it’s not just the school’s task to address the needs of the whole child, but the whole community, a more holistic approach,” she said.

Ruthven said that PCSSD is taking advantage of Arkansas’ Better Chance pre-kindergarten programs and that research supports the contention that the best way to increase graduation rates is to make sure that children come to kindergarten healthy, fit and with skills to perform at grade level.

She said working with daycare centers “down the road” would be an excellent plan — that it’s better to be proactive.

She said school administrators and teachers are torn between so many demands, but so little time to do everything, especially with all the things that are mandated.

“This could yield the highest return.”

“But when you have kids in ninth grade who can’t read, you must move forward,” Ruthven said.

Toward that end, the district has implemented transition camps in the summer to help students with academic and social challenges adapt from elementary school to middle school and again for students moving from middle school to high school.

Also, all district high schools now have a freshman academy, where teachers are grouped with some students at the beginning of the year who stay in touch with those students throughout the year, alert for problems or deficiencies.

Cooper said most school-reform projects are promoted by those with textbooks or programs to sell and that statistically nothing introduced to students in middle or high school is going to affect graduation rates.

He said after-school programs may keep children off the streets and out of trouble, but they don’t have a meaningful impact on graduation rates.

Cooper said that after six years, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program has proven to be a failure. And if changing textbooks or techniques were the answer to educating students and raising graduation rates, he asked why has there been no improvement in 40 years.

“Reformers lie, cheat and do anything they can to make a living off us,” he complained.

“I do think the next president is going to do something for us,” Cooper said.

He said children from upper- and middle-class families usually arrive in kindergarten with 2,000-word vocabularies, while many or most poor children have a vocabulary of about 400 words.

“Kids have to get things settled before they can learn,” he said.

Cooper said schools must work with daycare providers to make sure children come to kindergarten with grade-level skills and that children should be tested so that substandard daycare education can be identified. Then the schools need to work again with those daycares and the test scores should be published so parents know which to avoid.

Also, Cooper said, 80 percent of pregnant girls drop out of school to raise the next generation of dropouts.

He said 80 percent of the children of dropouts come to kindergarten at age 5, but with the developmental level of a 3-and-a-half-year-old.

What he proposes, and what has worked in his experience, he says, is to have daycare centers in the schools, so that the newborns beginning at age 6 weeks can be nourished, fit and learn the skills they need and so that their mothers can return to the classroom and graduate from high school.

The mothers also need to become trained daycare providers so they can help at the daycare and also understand how to help their own children.

“We have taken a whole generation of people and screwed them up,” Cooper said. Eighty-two percent of prisoners are school dropouts.

Schools should be community centers, available around the clock and include English as a second language and adult education classes.

Each school should have a nurse, mental-health counselor and a dentist and doctor available, as well as nutritionist.

He prefers the four nine-weeks system and would have real health and nutrition taught one section a year, with physical education taught the other three.

“We want graduates without a criminal record, a drug problem, a baby and without obesity,” Cooper added.

He said the schools and districts just waste time on the red-ribbon just-say-no campaigns and suggests the money be used instead for random drug tests and that any student failing the test be tested frequently thereafter.

Suspension and expulsion don’t work, he said. That just puts teenagers out on the street to burgle and get in trouble. What’s needed is an alternative school, such as the one in Lonoke County, where those students are sent by a judge after being put on probation.

If they behave, they can be reintegrated into their regular schools. They can be bused back to those schools to participate in athletics or their favorite art or music class.

If they act out while in alternative schools, they go to jail for two days, then back to alternative school — back to jail, back to alternative school as many times as it takes before they decide to behave at alternative school.