Ready to accept hopelessness?

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Solving education issues in Beloit is a community challenge, even more so than a school challenge.

ONLY THE WILLFULLY uninformed can have missed all the various measurements indicating a litany of academic performance issues in the School District of Beloit.

By the way, Beloit is not alone. Urban school districts with diverse populations and high levels of poverty — and America has plenty of city school districts fitting that description — are struggling with achievement issues from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

There’s no comfort in company, though. And there are no excuses when the stakes include the very future of the community.

SO WE APPLAUD members of the Beloit School Board, led on this effort by Dennis Baskin, for directing that a study committee be set up to gather information, identify issues and determine possible strategies for breaking the status quo.

Unfortunately, the effort sputtered almost immediately in a dispute over composition of the committee. Should it be mostly staff? Should it be mostly taxpayers and citizens?

Yes, and yes.

And add in the usual forgotten demographic — students.

THERE’S NO QUICK FIX so the objective must be a thorough examination of the issues followed by a deeply planned, strategic, well-funded effort with buy-in across the community.

We’re not education experts, but to us that suggests some variation of the following:

• A committee heavy on citizen-parent stakeholders to initially discuss what’s wrong and what’s right and what ideas may come forth for improvement. Limited staff should play the facilitator role to keep the process moving forward. We believe this show should be taken on the road, into the neighborhoods for public forums aimed at gathering street-level perspectives. Out in the neighborhoods, people might be more comfortable coming forth to talk with other citizens.

• A second committee, perhaps with citizens and staff in equal numbers, should take the inquiry into the schools for discussions with students. What do the kids think is wrong in their schools? What’s standing in the way of their success? There’s an old saying: If you want to know why the factory isn’t efficient, ask the guy on the line. Take the time to hear what kids have to say.

• Once all this data and feedback are gathered people who know what they’re doing will need to boil it down and convert it into strategic applications in the school buildings. That’s when, working with citizens involved in the process, administrators and staff will play the crucial role in finding ways to turn a lot of talk into effective actions. But prior to then staff should step lightly, because the last thing the district needs is to look like the process is rigged to protect the interests of the adults in the school buildings.

PEOPLE NEED TO BE realistic, as well. In recent months the Beloit Daily News has produced lots of reporting on the performance and issues facing the school district. Citizens have to own this. Conditions on the street contribute enormously to academic weaknesses in the district. It may be politically incorrect to say school outputs are largely determined by school inputs, but discomfort does not make it any less true.

As noted before, the kinds of issues dragging at the School District of Beloit are common in poorer, diverse urban systems all across America. To our minds, what that suggests is this: Beloit is a small town. If these problems cannot be solved in Beloit, they can’t be solved anywhere. It’s hopeless.

Ready to accept hopelessness?

The answer had better be no.

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