Help Our Schools!

Bad schools are a sure way to drive families out of the city. And every available statistic says the city's social problems--economic instability, drugs, unaffordable housing--are on a collision course with its educational system. Student turnover rates of 50 percent or more are no longer uncommon among Phoenix's 28 elementary school districts, and in some districts as many as 25 percent of the kids have seen one or more relatives do time in prison.

In district after district, children are coming to school too burdened by problems to learn, says Deborah Dillon, director of Phoenix's Excellence in Education program. At the same time, a steady thrum of pressure from the political right--which views local education as the frontline in its battle against creeping Communism--discourages any departure from the strictly academic by city schools.

The conservatives are angry because the educational system, swamped with children in crisis, is devoting ever greater resources to the remedial programs, social services and other support systems these kids need to stay in school.

Is there a role for the next city council in all this mess? Yes, indeed.
Dillon and a council-appointed task force are working on an action plan to guide City Hall's involvement in education; the first thing councilmembers need to do is to resist the temptation to shelve it. City Hall could do a lot to take the heat off the schools by developing and coordinating the non-academic services that schools are now struggling to provide.

Templates for such a city-school partnership are as close as Pinal County, where the county school superintendent has set up a family community center in each school district to coordinate all types of social services--drug prevention counseling, teen pregnancy and dropout counseling. A centerpiece of the program is reinvolving parents in their children's lives. (Last year the program served more than 1,100 at-risk kids in Pinal County, helping keep 876 from dropping out--a retention rate better than the national average for kids who aren't at risk. Pinal County school superintendent Sherry Ferguson says the program saved taxpayers $800,000 by preventing dropouts and reducing the number of low-birth-weight babies born to pregnant students.)

The Washington, D.C.-based Cities in Schools, a nonprofit organization, offers nuts-and-bolts ideas from around the country on how cities can help support their schools. The City of Phoenix could, as have other cities, sponsor afterschool programs aimed at latchkey children. "Aftercare" programs are funded through parent fees with some government subsidies available for low-income families, much as most daycare is funded.

The City Council is a perfect bully's pulpit, as well. The city should go to bat for state Superintendent C. Diane Bishop, who'll need all the help she can get winning legislative support to begin early-childhood education in the public schools. Early-childhood education is possibly the most significant educational initiative this state has seen since desegregation.

As usual, Arizona is limping along behind the rest of the country in tuning into it. Variations on the program, which targets three- and four-year-olds from disadvantaged homes, are already in place in 28 states. Nationwide, funding for early-childhood education is as diverse as the programs themselves; generally, the money is coming from local taxes or state-funded grants, as it does for other public school programs.

The city already runs portions of the federally funded Head Start program (aimed at kindergarten-age kids); it would be a short step to help coordinate an enrichment program for their younger brothers and sisters. Phoenix has plenty of empty school buildings to house the program, state education officials say.

They expect an added bonus because, in some districts, educators are finding that a significant amount of absenteeism stems from grade-schoolers being kept home to babysit preschool siblings.

There's no excuse for City Hall not campaigning vigorously on behalf of the periodic budget override elections all districts need to prevent funding cuts. Until the Arizona State Legislature comes to its senses and changes the state law governing school taxes, districts have no choice but to seek public approval, over and over, just to keep existing budgets intact.

The city's abysmal standardized test scores say at least as much about the community itself as they do about the caliber of schools. And any city council member who's halfway serious about education by now knows that some of the most creative, energetic efforts to improve education are occurring in districts serving the most distressed areas of town. The public needs to know it, as well.

The law strictly limits the schools' ability to argue their case before the public, but city elected leaders are under no such restraint. Next time a budget election comes around, councilmembers should be out in public from dawn to dusk bragging about what the schools in their district are doing to deserve taxpayer support.

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Kathleen Stanton