School and Community

Nearly 20 years ago, a good friend asked me what I wanted to do in my professional life. I vividly remember the words“I want to write” coming out of my mouth. I remember it because it came as a surprise to both him and me. At the time, I was involved in education and facility planning. But here I sit, 20 years later, doing exactly what I wanted to do and loving every minute of it. There is nothing I enjoy more than working with the educational community, sharing my findings with you, our readers, and thinking that something you read here will lead to the improvement of the educational experience for even one student.

The one thing I would like to share with you this month, is the role that your schools play in improving the communities we live in. Too often, we measure“good” schools solely according to student achievement — success is defined by meeting state standards and performing on standardized tests. This may measure impact on an individual student, but it ignores the impact the school has on the community as a whole. The effect of good schools is felt in business and industry, higher property values, lower crime rates, and the economic growth and health of the community. Good schools create better communities.

Business and industry are attracted to locations where good schools create a well-qualified workforce and a higher standard of living. According to a National Alliance of Business report, “the second most often cited reason for a business selecting a particular location is the quality of the schools.” Our public schools are the primary educators of this workforce. This will become even more critical during the next 20 years, when approximately 46 million skilled workers (the baby boomers) retire, and the jobs coming online require more education. Good schools can produce the well-educated workforce we need to sustain growth and increase productivity. The increased wages paid to these skilled workers will also add to the gross domestic product and to tax revenues, providing communities with the dollars needed to provide other valued services for residents.

Failure to provide an adequate education also has a profound impact on the community. The high school degree that once opened doors to a promising career opportunity is now a minimum requirement in the job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that individuals with higher levels of education have greater access to higher paying jobs, such as management, professional, and related occupations, than do those with lower education. In 2004, the working-poor rate for college graduates was 1.7 percent. Persons with less than a high school diploma were those most likely to be among the working poor (15.2 percent); having a high school diploma or equivalent, but no college, reduced the working-poor rate to 6.5 percent. Failure to complete high school has even more severe consequences. On average, dropouts earn less money than high school graduates throughout their lives. Dropouts also make up a larger percentage of persons on public assistance and a disproportionate percentage of our nation’s prison population — costing the community.

During his term as governor of West Virginia, Gaston Caperton spoke of the relationship between economic development and quality schools, pointing out that West Virginia’s people were undereducated and therefore less productive than they could be; and that the citizens were not proud of their schools, felt no ownership for them, and consequently did not value learning. He went on to say that if the citizens had pride in their schools and were vested in them, they would value learning and so would their children; that better schools would lead to a better educated workforce equipped to compete for better jobs and new industries; and that better schools would instill pride in the community and ensure productivity and a better life for all.

He was right. Without an adequate investment in education students will suffer, communities will stagnate, businesses will vacate, and property values will drop. For many communities, good schools provide an avenue to greater economic development. For others, good schools can be the catalyst for the redevelopment of inner city and suburban neighborhoods. The bottom line is, good schools affect more than just students, they affect communities as well — a fact too often overlooked.