Help Students, Not Bureaucrats

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We’re delighted that Payson Unified School District has snagged federal stimulus money to pay more attention to why about 20 percent of elementary school students fall so far behind that they face a worrisome risk of failure in middle and high school.

The federal money will enable the district to pay four existing employees to set up a system to closely monitor the progress of the district’s elementary school students and to red flag those who drop below grade level on reading, writing and math.

Once a child starts to falter, then “intervention specialists” would, in theory, swoop in to try and understand the problem. Does the child have an unsuspected learning disability? Trouble reading? Conflicts with other students or teachers? Behavior problems? Or is it something else?

In theory, that early warning system, coupled with individualized evaluation, will help the district give students the support they need to succeed in elementary school. That’s crucial, since a student who gets out of elementary school without a good grasp of fundamental academic skills, faces a rough time in the upper grades where teachers all assume a mastery of those basics.

Of course, we can’t help but note a few built-in ironies in the program, especially when funded by federal stimulus money put on the national credit card.

First, the district intends to use existing workers to do the evaluations. That might save some existing jobs, just as have the earlier infusions of federal money. But it won’t create any new jobs — which was supposedly the point of the stimulus package. Once more, the economic emergency has seemingly provided cover for worthy projects — that produce no jobs.

Second, we fret about the addition of one more federally driven, bureaucratic program that’s focused on struggling students, which comes on top of other stimulus funding targeted for special education students.

Certainly, we must make a fierce effort to give every child the tools to succeed. However, can we do that as the system becomes ever more bureaucratic and focused on struggling students — while perhaps neglecting the needs of the top students we’ll all eventually depend on to refocus and revitalize an economy that seems itself to be faltering?

We remain convinced that true education reform must take place at each school, the result of creative, inspired, qualified teachers and an empowered principal with the authority to help teachers reach students.

So the challenge facing the district remains how to make the federal money serve that goal, without being captured by the priorities of distant bureaucrats.

Signs of economic life

The good news — the number of people visiting the Rim Country has risen. The Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce reports a 15-percent rise in the number of people dropping by their information center, which should please residents and businesses.

The bad news — visitor-beloved Tonto Natural Bridge State Park remains closed. The community needs to keep the pressure on the state parks board to reopen this popular tourist site immediately — with phone calls, letters and e-mails to the state parks board and lawmakers. One reasonable proposal calls for using a couple of seasonal rangers to reopen the park at least four days a week. The weekend hours could still draw the 90,000-plus visitors so vital to the economic health of the Rim Country.

More good news came when a national retirement magazine named Payson as one of the best places to retire. The 220,000-circulation magazine says the natural surroundings of Payson are ideal for retirees — not to mention mountain scenery, outdoor activities and a four-season climate.

Getting noticed by a national publication will attract people who are a natural fit into the community, given our already retirement-oriented population.

More good news comes from the events promoted by the town and chamber. The Civil War re-enactment drew thousands of visitors. Hopefully, they left with a good impression that will bring them back soon.

Tourism is good business for Payson; we just have to learn how to bring visitors to the Rim Country who match what we have to offer — being the gateway to three national forests.

To those who put on these events, along with the volunteers and businesses that make them all happen, we say, “Good job. Keep up the good work.”

We are looking forward to a series of events over the next eight weeks which include a Sawdust Festival, a car show, a rodeo, the Aero Fair and an art tour. These events will give Payson a grand opportunity to present itself to visitors in a positive light.

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