Utah falls short in dealing with at-risk students

Originally published in the Deseret News.

The start of spring signals transition. The foothills turn green, we wear brighter colors and the blue sky makes us all feel just a little bit better. Spring brings barbecues, baseball and backyard gardening and, with any luck, the NBA playoffs for the home team. It’s a time of renewal, and after a long, cold and snowy winter, we are ready for the change.

The change of season also coincides with the upcoming graduation of approximately 33,000 Utah high school students. They will dawn their caps and gowns, plan graduation trips, find summer work and hopefully further their education in a trade or academic pursuit. With a degree in hand, they have taken the first step in building a prosperous future for themselves and our state.

Unfortunately for a large group of young adults, life is not so promising. Approximately 8,400 Utah teenagers in the class of 2013 will not graduate with their peers. They will join nearly 50,000 other high school dropouts from the past five years, many of whom form a growing underclass of Utahns. Without a degree, many of these Utahns are on a near certain path to poverty, crime and trouble.

I’m not an education researcher. I’m not able to pinpoint the right public intervention. I’m not qualified to propose a solution. I only know we owe it to these young adults and the broader economy to do better.

I have a hunch the path to dropping out starts early in a child’s life. The pattern works something like this: beautiful children of promise are born under unequal circumstances. The children born to homes with supportive families and stable incomes have the wind at their backs. These children grow and develop their sense of purpose, self-image and talents. They have their struggles, but most make it through the public education system and find ways to give back to the system that created them.

The children born under trying circumstances — poverty, drug use, mental and physical abuse, lack of adult support — have the wind in their faces as they try to make it in this world. Every step of their development faces greater risk and the cost to society grows as their needs go unmet. Many don’t make it.

We have clear indicators of the income disparity and divergent educational outcomes that exist in our state. Consider Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City where approximately 1 in 10 students received free or reduced lunch last year. It won’t surprise you that 91 percent of the school’s students are proficient in language arts and math.

Now travel 15 minutes west to Backman Elementary, where approximately 9 in 10 students received free or reduced lunch last year and the math and reading proficiency rates are in the 50 percent range.

Utah — for all of its love of children and commitment to families and contributions to the national and world economies — falls seriously short in helping at-risk students. While improving, Utah’s high school graduation rate ranks in the bottom half of the country. And the data is clear — high school dropouts during their lifetime will make far less income, experience higher rates of unemployment and require greater levels of public assistance. Many will suffer because of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, abortion and crime. Far too many will end up behind bars.

As Utahns, we own these problems. We can pay now or pay a lot more later. These are our kids. They are our future. It’s time to make them a priority.