Everything Hinges On This One Reform

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Frightening. Inspiring. Vital. All those words apply to the story you’ll find in today’s edition on the Class Acts page.

At first glance, it looks like a warm-hearted feature story about an expert, caring teacher in the Payson Unified School district. But it really holds the key to everything — from saving public schools to adapting to the 21st century.

Every day, Roxanne Savage sits down with about 70 struggling elementary students to help them solve the mysterious riddle of the written word.

She represents the single most useful element in the school reform movement of recent years — a determination to ensure every student can read by third grade.

One landmark, years-long study of 4,000 students by a team of university researchers funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation revealed that students who can’t read fluently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. Such students account for one-third of all students, but a dismaying three-fifths of all dropouts.

The figures get much worse for poor readers who come from low-income families — with a dropout rate more like six times the average. Please note: 71 percent of the students in the Payson Unified School District qualify for free and reduced school lunches based on family income.

So every day, Ms. Savage gives expert, one-on-one attention to the scores of elementary school students in this town struggling to learn the vital tool that will largely determine their future academic success.

The district relies mostly on extra federal funds to pay her salary and provide the other additional help those students need to overcome the stumbling blocks they must hurdle through no fault of their own.

If you spend a couple of hours watching her work patiently, compassionately and insightfully with one hopeful, eager, frustrated child after another, odds are you’ll come away just as inspired and touched as we were.

But then, she sees 70 children a day — and the district continues to scramble to scrape together the money it needs to offer those children the help they need.

Still, she has done her part, with tender professionalism. It is inspiring. So we must now do our part as well.

It is vital. For if we don’t, this nation has no hope of thriving in a complex world. And that’s just plain frightening.

Programs offer low-cost college options for students

A college education remains the door to the future for many students. Unfortunately, the door has begun to swing, inexorably shut for many — especially young people living in rural areas like Payson.

On average, tuition alone at a public university now costs about $9,000 annually while private universities charge an average of $36,000. Mind you: that’s just tuition. Paying for room and board can easily double or triple that base cost.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that higher education produces a benefit in lifetime earnings — people with just a high school diploma earn an average of $23,000 annually over their lifetimes, compared to $38,200 for people with a community college degree, $52,200 for people with a university degree and $109,000 for a professional degree.

Of course, some recent studies show that at this moment job prospects might be better for recent graduates with the right, advanced vocational degree than with the average college degree. This certainly underscores the need to continue providing targeted vocational programs for those students who don’t go to college.

That’s why we hope parents will pay attention to the story in today’s paper about the growing number of programs that can help Rim Country students get a college education at a reduced cost. The state’s three public universities have all developed partnerships with community colleges, including Gila Community College, to ensure that students living at home can complete their first two years of classes at still-affordable rates, without wasting time and money when it comes time to transfer to a university.

Hopefully, when ASU opens its Payson campus, students will gain yet another, high quality, lower cost option.

In the meantime, we hope parents and students will investigate some of the programs detailed in today’s report by reporter Michele Nelson.

Of course, community colleges must work hard to ensure students taking that path can take courses just as challenging and enriching as they might find during their first two years on a university campus. All too many students shuffle through less rigorous community college classes, only to find they’re not prepared for the demands of a university.

Fortunately, the growing links between the state’s universities and its community colleges promises to keep that door to the future ajar for all the state’s students.

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