TERRE HAUTE —
Getting more young people to graduate from high school is a complicated task.
That effort exemplifies the broader challenge of revitalizing the community surrounding those schools. Thus, news that Vigo County schools have raised the district’s graduation rate from 73.4 percent in 2007 to 92.2 in 2012 merits more than applause, which is indeed due. That improvement process should serve as a roadmap for Terre Haute to overcome its greatest obstacles.
The Vigo County School Corp. graduation rate exceeded the state average of 87.9 percent and was the highest among the 10 largest districts making up the Indiana Urban Schools Association. Those niches are especially impressive given the overall graduation-rate improvement statewide, by 1.1 percent over last year and more than 10 percent since 2007, according to the Indiana Department of Education. The increase moves the state closer to the DOE goal of 90 percent graduation success. Vigo County is already there.
A cross-section of community members rolled up their sleeves to get these results, including educators, parents, students, VCSC staffers and board members, and as a group termed “community partners.”
In reality, the “community partners” should include all of us. The problems Vigo County schools face in raising its percentage of students earning a high school diploma are largely the same ones the city and county must conquer to become the best community in Indiana by 2020.
A prime difficulty in pushing a teenager to meet graduation requirements is simply getting them to show up for class. Some students, Tanoos pointed out, had a staggering number of absences — 30, 40 and 50 days or more per year. Poor attendance also plagues the workforce. In an analysis of the “skills gap” last month, local employers and job training groups mentioned the lack of “soft skills” as a key reason many people struggle to meet the requirements to perform advanced manufacturing work. “Soft skills” include showing up to work on time, or showing up — period — as well as getting along with co-workers, behaving properly with those colleagues, and following instructions.
Vigo County’s high child poverty rate inhibits learning for kids whose only balanced meals come through school breakfasts or lunches. The institution of a “backpack” program in the district has given children from low-income homes a little extra food to take home on the weekends. Adults who don’t maintain a balanced diet probably under-perform at work, and risk losing their job. The healthy behaviors of adults living in this sector of Indiana — the 8th congressional district — ranks 424th out of 436 districts nationwide, according to the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
Do those behaviors — smoking rates, eating habits, lifestyle choices — matter? Well, in a community with five institutions of higher learning, the unemployment rate in Terre Haute has steadily remained at or near the highest among Indiana metropolitan areas since the recession ended (statistically) in 2009.
The district has used two alternative schools to redirect troubled kids toward class work and graduation. The proper support and environment lacking in some of those students’ lives are likely missing in the lives of some adults who end up on the wrong side of the law. Each young person steered away from those pitfalls and toward learning, from the K-through-12 schools to college or technical training, doubly benefits us all.
High school graduation is a starting point in life, not a finish line. The community should be thankful for the improved preparation young people have received through the school corporation’s efforts, and should be committed to maintain that standard year after year. The schools have proven that our problems can be addressed.