Community must support education

Sunday, January 29, 2012

When a national business group published the results of an analysis of educational attainment in Tennessee, the results stung.

Shelbyville ranked dead last among mid-sized towns. On Numbers, a business website, rated local brainpower by using raw 2009 data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Each town's score was based on the percentage of adults -- aged 25 and older -- in five categories: Dropped out before high school graduation; stopped at high school diploma; stopped at associate's degree, or attended college but stopped without any degree; stopped at bachelor's degree and earned graduate and/or professional degree.

In Shelbyville, 35 percent of adults are high-school dropouts. Roughly 40 percent stopped at a diploma. That's three quarters of the population. Just over 9 percent of our residents earned a bachelor's or professional degree.

The numbers are almost opposite those of Brentwood, where the dropout rate is 1.68 percent and 10 percent stopped at a high school degree. Almost 70 percent of those residents hold a bachelor's or professional degree.

It's a trend that is destined to continue as the state's 2011 report card revealed yet another decline in the graduation rate of those students coming into adulthood.

That's not new news. The graduation rate in Bedford County has danced around the 80 to 85 percent range since the late 90s.

The state's formula for calculating a graduation rate is not only muddled and confusing, but the formula and data sets used to form it change with each new administration. This makes a thoughtful analysis of the numbers from the last decade impossible -- the 79.8 percent number from 1993 is an orange compared to the apple of 79.3 from 2010.

When speaking of current graduation rates -- it's not about the demographics, either. While the population of other ethnic groups have stayed level or changed only slightly over the years, the Hispanic student population has exploded. In 1994, Bedford County reported 46 Hispanic students system-wide, with a high percentage of students having Limited English Proficiency (LEP). In 2010, there were 1,274 Hispanic students, with nearly 900 students being considered LEP.

Yet, Hispanic students graduate at a higher rate than their black and white counterparts. It is only in the last four years the state of Tennessee has broken out graduation rates by ethic categories, but the graduation rate for Hispanics is generally 90 percent -- right in line with the state's goal number.

The primary demographic which impacts the graduation rate is one which has doubled since 1993. In that year, 30 percent of students were considered economically disadvantaged. The rate hit 50 percent of the student population in 2007, and stands at 61 percent for 2010.

What is new are all the options available to high school students to help equip them to graduate -- even in spite of seemingly impossible challenges at home.

What needs to be renewed is the consistent message we must give to students from the time they enter our schools. "When you graduate." Not if.

Teachers already state the message. The mind-set change must also occur at home, with parents and grandparents insisting "Education is important," at every turn. Local business leaders are key in the equation as well -- changes in hiring practices can send a clear message to job seekers that an education is required to succeed in Bedford County.

Let it be known that this community values education. We're at least that smart.

Bedford County Schools will introduce a new initiative, "Their Future is Our Future," at a noon meeting Thursday at Central High School. If successful, the program will "impact the community and reap benefits for generations to come."