So, let’s say you’ve been weeding the back yard with a dental pick. Slow going. You’re sweating. You’ve got bloody knuckles. And the weeds seem to be growing back faster than you can nitpick them out of the stony soil.
Your neighbor hears you cursing and sobbing. So he lends you his weed whacker. In an hour, you make wonderful progress. But he comes back and says he needs the weed whacker back.
What do you do?
A: Get back down on your knees with the dental pick, since you already own it.
B: Notice that your Uncle Sam is giving away hammers. So you take the free hammer to see how that works on weeds.
C: Go buy a weed whacker of your own.
Now, that’s a long setup for the punch line — but the Payson School Board appears willing to labor on with a free dental pick rather than spring for a weed whacker.
To be specific: The school board’s about to make an enormous mistake by not finding a way to continue a spectacularly successful intervention that appears to have done more for kids than any single program on record.
Six years ago, the district landed a federal Gear Up grant intended to increase the graduation and college attendance rates — both below the state average in Payson. The district used the federal money to hire master teacher Kristi Ford to effectively mentor the whole class through middle school and high school.
She met repeatedly with every student, got to know all their families, counseled them on courses they needed to take, cajoled and inspired them to develop an academic plan, talked to their teachers when they struggled, intervened with the principal when they got into trouble, coached them through classes they might have failed — and to top it all off, taught classes like the inspiring Academic Decathlon.
After six years, she tallied up the data on 136 students who remained in the district for the full six years. All of those students graduated high school, in a class that raked in the most scholarships in school history. A wonderful 72 percent of those students are now either enrolled in college or awaiting acceptance letters. In previous years, fewer than half of Payson students take any college classes and fewer than 30 percent ever earn a degree.
Now, the numbers remain preliminary. We don’t know for sure how many of those students will actually show up for college classes. We don’t know how many will end up with a college degree — especially given the outrageous rise in tuition rates in a state that seems resolved to abandon public education.
But we do know that Kristi Ford achieved spectacular results by loving every one of those kids and refusing to give up on a single one of them. Anyone who has watched a gifted teacher in the classroom can tell you that’s the single most important factor in helping kids succeed. If kids know you care, you’re listening and you’d fight for them — they’d turn themselves inside out for you.
But instead of seizing upon this brilliant and effective program, the district seems willing to let is slide away because the federal government didn’t renew or extend the grant.
That’s just foolish.
Ms. Ford has apparently already found another job — a bitter loss for the district. She achieved those startling results through dogged persistence and love for those kids. She got only fitful and sporadic support for her efforts. That’s hardly surprising, given the number of times she challenged administrators and other teachers in her advocacy for those children. The district has been in turmoil for the past two years, sorting out the sputtering relationships between board and superintendent — and this invaluable program appears to have fallen through the cracks.
We hope incoming Superintendent Greg Wyman will find some way to apply this same approach to a fresh class. Perhaps he can employ the student achievement teachers now tasked with bringing up test scores.
The state and federal insistence that every district worship at the altar of standardized tests has already done more harm than good in many districts. It certainly offers no hope of producing a 72 percent college attendance rate.
But the dental pick of standardized testing is free — and the district seems willing to wield it even if it’s the wrong tool.
Time for the board to buy a weed whacker — even if the district has to spend its own money.