A community issue

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Nancy Jernigan, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Missouri, touched a nerve at this month's First Friday Coffee sponsored by the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Jay Knudtson and chamber president John Mehner discussed the state of the city. Jernigan asked how the city could assist the Cape Girardeau School District and children from low-income and single-parent families.

The mayor said schools and the city are separately governed and that few parents attend parent-teacher conferences. The chamber president said private schools hurt public schools and the district needs a superintendent who will stay awhile.

Jernigan's questions, which tied her concern about schools to the district's low-income and single-parent families, were well-grounded. The dropout rate at Central High School also is a major factor in the broader problems of the school system.

In a way, Jernigan's questions were aimed at the whole community, not just city government. She could well have asked what civic organizations and churches are doing. And how well are social-service agencies that receive millions of dollars in state and federal funding doing their jobs?

Any attempt to point a finger of blame is counterproductive. The United Way director's questions, however, should stimulate some thinking about what we are -- or are not -- doing cooperatively as a community rather than relying on each entity to do its own thing.

For example, the school district is keenly aware of the high school dropout rate and has implemented several programs to curb a disturbing trend. The Alternative Education Center, a new transition program for Central High School freshmen to keep them in school when they turn 16, tutoring programs, career counseling, exploratory courses at the Career and Technology Center and the addition of a post-high school transition coordinator are a few of the steps the district has taken.

But the problems in the school district are not isolated from the community. We are all affected in one way or another by students who drop out and fail to achieve their academic potential and by parents who take little, if any interest in the educational welfare of their children.

Jernigan's questions are a good starting point for more community involvement. Joint city-school forums to talk about these problems have already been mentioned. Let's start talking.

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