United Way unveils Cape Girardeau education improvement plan

Friday, April 1, 2011

For more than two years the Education Solutions Team has investigated the causes and conditions of student failure.

On Thursday afternoon, the Cape Girardeau-area task force, sponsored by the United Way of Southeast Missouri, unveiled its "Mobilization Plan for Ensuring the Success of Our Children," a 61-page report filled with statistics and containing a simple directive:

It takes an entire community to produce better students.

"The community needs to think differently about our role in public education," Nancy Jernigan, executive director of United Way of Southeast Missouri, told more than 100 civic leaders, educators, administrators, businesspeople and members of the religious community gathered at Drury Lodge for a luncheon calling for community action.

"We want you engaged with us in this work," Jernigan said.

The task force's top goal is finding ways to boost the Cape Girardeau School District's graduation rate to 90 percent by 2019. The rate in 2010 was 78.4 percent.

Jernigan highlighted the report's recommendations, noting the one simple step that could have the most profound and cost-effective impact on student success: Appreciating educators.

"Teachers and our support staff are entrusted with our most precious citizens," she said, "yet they are asked to do more and more every day -- more testing, more evaluation, more assessments and more parenting."

The Education Solutions Team also recommends maximizing opportunities for children to learn out of school, where they spend the majority of their time. To do that, Jernigan said, will require an expansion of community resources, including programs sponsored by the United Way.

Bolstering educational achievement will require stronger parental involvement, the United Way report says. Jernigan said mentoring programs and parent liaisons in the schools have helped reach more families of at-risk students. But she said there has been a lot of hopelessness found in homes that include poverty as a common denominator.

"I think about the caring community we have, the strong faith-based community we are, and how could we let this happen," Jernigan said.

The Education Solutions Team will continue to meet annually and review strategies. The United Way will work with the school district to track a number of indicators, from kindergarten readiness and classroom attendance to discipline referrals and third-grade reading levels, a critical gauge of student success. All of that is designed to help raise the graduation rate.

Superintendent Jim Welker said school officials were a little anxious at first about an outside group looking at what appeared to be a school issue.

"As we were assured many times, this was not an attempt to tell us how to do our jobs, but rather get the community involved in an issue that really is more than a school issue," Welker said.

The report notes the district's Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, which includes many of the same goals as United Way's initiative.

There are many connections to the educational campaign, at the local, state and national levels.

Thursday's local event coincided with United Way Worldwide's National Education Town Hall meeting. In 2008, United Way announced a goal to cut by half the number of young people who drop out of high school by 2018.

Also in attendance at the Drury Lodge session was Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro, who pointed to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's Top 10 by 20 initiative, aimed at bringing Missouri education out of the ranks of the average.

She said Cape Girardeau's community plan to boost graduation rates and academic achievement in many ways mirrors what DESE plans to do to drive performance.

"As I travel around the state I can tell you there are few communities that have come together with this kind of commitment," she said of the Education Solutions Team.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

104 South Vantage Drive, Cape Girardeau, MO

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