Because of Marj Passman’s illness and my availability to fill in, I had the great privilege last night of representing the School Board at the Work and Learn Center – East graduation at Lapham School.
Work and Learn Center provides an option for students who are in their third year of high school, credit deficient, and at risk of not graduating. The program provides a four-semester sequence of academic courses and related work experiences. With successful completion, students graduate with a regular diploma from their home high school and are eligible to continue their studies at Madison College.
Last night was a happy occasion. The ten graduating students each spoke about their perilous and circuitous high school journeys that reached a successful conclusion with their graduation.
Based on their speeches, the availability of the Work and Learn option was key to these students’ success. One after another, the graduates told us that with no Work and Learn, they likely would have dropped out. Now, just about all will be enrolling or have already enrolled at Madison College.
Can we quantify the long-term social benefit of changing the trajectory of a student’s path from probable drop-out to high school graduate and now college student? If we could, the present value of that benefit would surely dwarf whatever incremental amount we are spending to provide the Work and Learn alternative for the student. It is a smart social investment as well as the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, these upbeat thoughts are darkened by foreboding as ominous signs of what the legislature may have in mind for our schools begin to leak out. We have been able to keep our alternative programs going and even expand them temporarily through the use of short-term federal stimulus money. (I can’t take credit for that; as I recall, Board members Lucy Mathiak and Marj Passman pushed to get some of the stimulus money directed toward alternative programs.) But the stimulus money is going away and finding replacement funding sources sure isn’t looking good.
I understand the state’s budget problems and recognize the likelihood of decreases in state aid to the schools. What is troubling is that there is talk that the Governor and legislature may also want to limit sharply how much school districts can increase their property tax levies to help make up some of the shortfall. If this comes to pass, then I fear that we as a School Board will be flat-out prohibited from providing the quality of education that our community wants, expects, and is willing to pay for.
The Work and Learn graduation last night put a human face on the dilemma. We all know that alternative programs tend to go on the chopping block when cuts must be made. It was a little chilling to look around at the beaming faces last night and think of the human cost if our schools end up starved for resources and we have to slash into the bone and marrow of our programs.
Graduations are wonderful occasions when, at least temporarily, the future appears wide-open for the graduates and anything seems possible. In that spirit of optimism, here’s hoping that we can keep Work and Learn and all our other alternative programs available for the students they serve so well. Let’s not sacrifice all the potential achievements and contributions of our future alternative program graduates at the altar of a short-sighted policy to be open for business but closed for learning.