School Figures Show Depth Of The Downturn

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School reformers — taken note.

Town planners — pay attention.

Business boosters — take heed.

The workers in this town can’t hold their breaths indefinitely.

The unsettling figures on the number of students coming and going at Julia Randall Elementary School should give us all pause.

The figures show that the alarming enrollment decline in the elementary school we’ve lamented for the past several years only hints at the full problem.

About one in five of the more than 600 students there either moved away, came late, left early — or both came late and left early.

Those figures hint at the dilemma of far too many young families in this town, as they struggle to make ends meet in an economy that remains sickly — even four years after the onset of the “recovery,” with the stock market hitting record highs.

Like much of rural Arizona, Payson continues to languish although Maricopa County and the state budget seem to have mostly recovered from the disastrous effects of the housing collapse four years ago. The state has reacted mostly by cutting aid to rural areas.

We must pay attention to those alarming enrollment figures.

For starters, the enrollment turmoil ought to sound a cautionary note when it comes to Gov. Jan Brewer’s effort to link state funding to student test scores — and school ratings. We have already expressed doubts about whether the AIMS test data on which she intends to rely fairly measure whether a school’s succeeding — and students are learning. We fear her approach will mostly serve to punish schools trying to help students facing the greatest challenges. But the enrollment turnover figures underscore another problem with tying funding to test scores. How can you hold a teacher responsible for student performance if 20 percent of her students enroll part-way through the year or vanish before the school year ends?

The figures also hold a grim message for town planners — and business advocates.

This community has fought heroically to cope with the downturn — from raising money for the food bank to supporting the Time Out Domestic Violence shelter in the face of reductions in state and federal support. The generous and cheerful spirit of this marvelous community found expression again this weekend with the outpouring of support for the Payson Library’s Taste of the Rim benefit.

But the turnover figures from the school demonstrate the challenges confronting young, working families in this town. Those figures underscore the evidence offered by the lines at the food bank and the number of children who qualify for free and reduced, federally subsidize school lunches.

We hope that the people so patiently negotiating with the U.S. Forest Service and Arizona State University for a campus here take note. We cannot wait indefinitely. Do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good — whether it’s in settling on a piece of land or signing a university partner.

Moreover, we also hope that Payson and Gila County will treat economic development as the emergency it has become — and strike up the aggressive, far-sighted partnership that’s been lacking in the realm of economic development and recruitment.

The families who make this town our beloved community have dog-paddled until they’ve sunk — and held their breaths until they’re blue. But no one can hold their breath indefinitely.

So we beg the advocates for this community: Take note, pay attention, take heed.

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