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Classroom challenge

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South faces public school crisis, report says.

By Ret Boney

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. [06.01.04] — The South is giving its young people a poor education, and will pay the price if it does not improve its public schools, a new report says.

The key to economic and social progress in the region, it says, is “to ensure integrated, equitable, effective public education to equip our youth for the economic, social and civic challenges of the next 50 years.”

Several trends in combination threaten the future of the South, says “The State of the South 2004: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board,” the fifth installment in a biennial series of studies by MDC Inc., a nonprofit in Chapel Hill, N.C., that focuses on economic and workforce development in the region.

Those trends include:

* A changing economy needing more highly skilled and educated workers.

* A young population, and future workforce, that is increasingly African American and Latino.

* Racial and economic segregation and inequality that increasingly plague public schools.

* The failure of public high schools to inspire many students.

As a result of key demographic trends in the region, including an aging population overall and a fast-growing young minority population, the report says, the region’s future workforce is destined to be populated more and more by blacks and Hispanics, the groups least likely to receive an adequate education.

In the wake of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that called for desegregating public schools “with all deliberate speed,” the South by the late 1980s had become the most desegregated region in the U.S., the report says, but desegregation has declined each year since 1988.

“We still have so many kids that are going to predominantly poor black or Latino schools that don’t have the resources they need,” says Sarah Rubin, a senior associate at MDC and an author of the report.

These low-income schools also tend to have the most inexperienced or unqualified teachers, she says, further isolating their students from the quality education they need to be prepared for college or good jobs.

The report outlines five goals for the region:

* Ensuring that students are prepared for higher education when they graduate by extending literacy training to high school, and by matching standards and curricula to the needs of the economy and higher education.

* Providing students with more “pathways” through high school, such as programs that prepare students for jobs that don’t require a college degree, or options for accelerated learning.

* Helping students become more connected to adults, and schools more connected to their communities.

* Ending segregation by class and race by eliminating high-poverty schools.

* Developing more well-trained, well-paid professional teachers.

Rubin says the philanthropic community can provide critical leadership in addressing these challenges.

“Foundations should be promoting public discourse and informing leaders and citizens” about these issues, and push for innovation, granting schools flexibility to try new approaches, she says.

“I would encourage foundations to look at some of the really tough problems that no one has an answer to yet,” she says, “to fund research and experimentation.”

One alarming problem is the increasing tendency for young high school dropouts, especially black men, to end up in prison.

Nearly as many black men are in prison as are enrolled in higher education, and almost one in three young black male dropouts are in jail or prison, or on parole, compared to one in five native-born Hispanic males and one in 10 white males.

The report highlights several foundation initiatives to address tough educational problems, including a four-year scholarship program, begun in Houston, to increase college enrollment and success.

Initially funded by Tenneco, and now also backed by local foundations and other organizations, Project GRAD, or Graduation Really Achieves Dreams, saw a tripling of college attendance in its first three years.

It has since spread to 185 schools throughout the nation, working with students in kindergarten and elementary grades to equip them to learn in high school.

“In light of the economic and demographic changes already in motion, the South cannot afford to write off any of its young people,” the report says. “The future well-being of both our economy and our democratic society is at stake.”

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