COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Mentors, not money, will solve state education, incarceration woes

WestEd is a nonprofit policy group that focuses on education. Paul Koehler, director of WestEd’s Policy Center, said a nationwide study reveals that 75 percent of the men and women in U.S. prisons did not graduate from high school.

According to Koehler, California planners use statistics about the third-grade reading level of California students as one of its predictors of future needed jail space. He said the number of students in third grade who don’t read at or above their grade level can help indicate future high school graduation rates. Koehler pointed out that about 25 percent of California’s high school students drop out of school or do not graduate on time.

WestEd is a partner with the California Mayors Education Roundtable, which has the objective of improving high school graduation rates in the state. One of the 50 or so leaders who are part of this effort is Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox.

A few weeks ago, I attended a morning-long roundtable meeting hosted by Cox. This meeting, the third in a series of discussions and the second I was invited to attend, focused on that third-grade reading level issue.

When I wrote in March about the February conference hosted by the mayor, I mentioned that the discussion then did not attempt to assign blame. Nor, with one exception, did it discuss money. That was also true of the third meeting.

This time, the only mention of funding was a brief comment in passing that the approval of Proposition 30 would not necessarily result in more state taxpayer dollars to local schools.

There was no effort to blame anyone or anything for low graduation rates. Instead, the discussion focused on some of the things that can be done to help correct reading deficiencies and, by extension, improve graduation rates, and, by further extension, allow kids to enter society prepared to participate without becoming criminals.

The nearly 200 people in attendance were school administrators, teachers, counselors, and a sprinkling of Chula Vista citizens and business people who want to help. The session was designed to identify one way to be part of the solution. As was the case early in the year, I came away with the reinforced idea that throwing money at a problem is not necessarily the way to solve it.

Amid all of this discussion in Chula Vista were reports from other parts of the country about a need for longer school days. That wasn’t suggested at this Graduation Works meeting. Engaging the adults in Chula Vista to help underachieving kids learn to read was the sole purpose of this session.

Longer school days would certainly please those parents who see the classroom more as a baby sitter than as a step to prepare children to be successful in a competitive society. And, of course, as those reports suggested, longer school hours would cost taxpayers more money, something rather scarce these days.

Years ago, my youngest daughter just did not get the concept of reading. She knew it, my wife and I knew it, and her teachers knew it. So, we attended to it. We made a game of reading road signs and billboards. For a short time, because we could afford it, we provided her with a tutor for an hour or so each week.

Ultimately, reading clicked. My daughter graduated from high school, graduated from college and today is gainfully employed. She is pursuing a career in art. A few weeks ago her hard work was rewarded when she was asked to serve as a curator for an artist’s showcase facility in Denver. It didn’t take much to get her over that reading bump.

The clear message at this conference was that not everyone can afford a tutor, but almost anyone who can read can be a volunteer and help. Not everyone is a trained instructor, but almost anyone can be a positive influence and supporter. Honest encouragement and recognition of improvement goes a long way. It was certainly true with my daughter.

If you live or have a business in Chula Vista you can get involved in this program by calling the mayor’s office. If you live elsewhere, it is likely most school districts offer a volunteer mentoring opportunity. A gift of time now might save jail construction money later. Not a bad trade-off.


Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He can be reached at george.hawkins@sddt.com.

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