Last week I went to Payson High School to shoot photographs of students registering for the 2005-2006 school year.
Among the excited freshmen was ninth-grader Jessie Wilembrecht. Her face was filled with enthusiasm and hope for the future.
But for Jessie and the 227 students entering high school for the first time, Arizona has placed an obstacle in their path.
This week, the annual Kids Count report was released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report measures the percentage of teens, ages 16 to 19, who have dropped out of school.
For the fourth year in a row, Arizona's high school dropout rate is the worst in the nation.
Arizona's dropout rate is 12 percent, compared with 8 percent nationally.
For me, it's no coincidence that Arizona also ranks 49th in the nation in education funding.
New Payson Schools Superintendent Sue Myers sees a direct correlation.
"I think funding is a huge part of it, and legislators need to finally start listening to the public," Myers said. "I think the public has shown that they support schools and they do want quality education for our children. Legislators must start listening and make real change. We need money to help us with programs, salaries and facilities. We're trying to fix facilities now that have been neglected for years."
The condition of our school facilities is a direct reflection of how important education is to our legislators -- and our children feel it on many levels.
A few years ago I walked into the middle school gym the day before a science fair. I was shocked to see the condition of the rest rooms. They were so rundown they were almost unusable. I knew that hundreds of parents would be in the gym the following day and I was embarrassed for the district. The next day I saw that the rest room doors had been chained shut and portable outhouses had been trucked in for public use.
"I could not believe those bathrooms when I toured the campuses this summer" Myers said. "This year those bathrooms will be remodeled."
Attorney Tim Hogan has fought hard to help equalize educational opportunities in Arizona, but it's a never-ending battle.
"It's a shame that we have to take each issue to court to get the legislators' attention," Myers said.
But the inadequate facilities are not the only way poor funding increases the dropout rate.
"One thing we really know is that every student needs a connection at school," Myers said. "Whether it's an adult who recognizes them and pays attention to them, or a group where each child feels a sense of belonging -- such as band, sports, drama CTE (Career and Technical Education). That makes the difference."
Sadly, these vital programs that greatly reduce dropout rates and encourage high standards, are often the first to be cut because of insufficient funding.
It's time to fix education funding in Arizona.
The new mission statement for PUSD is "Unite students, parents, staff and community to achieve academic excellence."
It takes all these groups working together to help a child have a successful education.
Legislators and taxpayers fall into the community category. Will we let our children down again?