Thursday, May 31, 2007

Food for thought...

The following editorial, written by a 17-year old Allen HS student appeared in the Morning Call on May 18th.

'I suggest statewide education reform that would pool the property tax of the entire state and distribute it based on the needs of each school.'' I remember coming home from school one day listening to National Public Radio with my mom. The story was about a village in Africa whose children were taking a test that, if they passed, allowed them to continue their educations. The community wanted so badly to give the children the best shot at passing that the entire village sacrificed meals to provide every student with a hot meal on test day. I sat in awed silence. An entire community would forgo so much to give its children a chance at a better education!

That story contrasts with the value we place on education here in the Lehigh Valley. Look at my high school, William Allen, the fifth-largest in the state. Last year's graduating class had an abysmal graduation rate of 66 percent. Of those, a mere 58 percent planned to pursue a post-secondary education. Last year, 43 percent of 11th graders were proficient or better in reading and 27 percent were proficient or better in math. Right now, our school building is about 1,200 students over capacity. Where is the outrage? Why aren't people appalled by the situation?

Actually, Allen's problems are well known around the Lehigh Valley, but there still is a lack of public indignation. When there is public outcry or press about the school, it is for the wrong reasons; not to make people aware or to take action, but to further denigrate it. We're dumb, our school is dirty, our sports aren't the greatest, and we're all gangsters and thugs. Yet, people don't realize their perception reinforces any hint of factual evidence. We ''live up'' to their standard.

I've walked into our bathrooms when girls from other schools are using them, and watched as they roll their eyes at the scrawled curse words and filth, and I'm ashamed. I look at the trash in the hallways and the graffiti on the walls, and wish they weren't there. I've tasted the defeat of losing a soccer game or even a sport where I was a bystander where I know the opposing team assumed it had the win even before playing. I can feel it in the body language in the halls of my school -- a reckless sense of despair.

Allen still is a good school. It just seems that for every positive step, more steps are taken back because the demands on a school of 3,700 are enormous. We have a great curriculum, filled with challenging courses. However, not being in school in the first place greatly affects class time and learning. Although many Allen students walk to school, daily attendance is only 83.9 percent. In addition, how can anyone expect to learn when suspensions and fights are so common? More than 27 percent of students received an out-of-school suspension last year. Perhaps, this is to be expected when overcrowding is such an enormous problem and tempers run high. With so many students, there is no chance to get an individualized education. Classes are enormous. The nine guidance counselors are forced to function as crisis counselors rather than providers of educational guidance.

Yes, the high population at Allen provides diversity, which allows students to get a taste of the real world. The downside is that there are so many types of need: 26 languages are spoken at Allen, special education enrollment is high, and its enrollment of ESOL students is the highest around.

Other schools in the area have high populations and complex issues. Look at Emmaus and Parkland high schools. The former has close to 2,700 students and the latter 3,100. Both have overly stressed students, alcohol and drugs. Yet, at Emmaus, 61 percent of 11th graders scored proficient or better on the math test and 76 percent scored proficient or better in reading, while 70 percent of Parkland 11th-graders were proficient or better in math and 85 percent were proficient or better in reading. Where is the difference? What gives them the advantage? Money. Money … and community involvement.

The lyrics of the Pink Floyd song ''Money'' come to mind … ''Money, get away … Get a good job with good pay and you're okay.'' Money makes the world go round. The primary source of funding for public schools in Pennsylvania is property taxes. The average market value for a home in Allentown is $129,339 compared to $273,140 on average in Lehigh County, not to mention that of 45,960 city housing units, 47 percent are non-owner occupied. Allentown suffers the same declining tax base as do most other urban areas. Due to this lack of a strong tax base, the Allentown School District spends only $8,360 per student (in the lowest 9 percent in the commonwealth). Yet, these are the students who have significantly higher needs than counterparts whose education is funded by average $9,443 per student in Lehigh County. Many families cannot facilitate further learning. The mean income per student in the district is $58,684, compared to $119,561 in the county. Of the 3,700 students at Allen, 55.9 percent are from low-income families.

With additional money, think what could be done: smaller classes; more qualified teachers who represent the diversity of the school; more counselors; more effort to get students in after-school activities; more new books, computers, and other technology; less trash and more of an appearance of a learning institution, not a forgotten, dilapidated, urban school. Money alone doesn't mean students will change their ''negative attitudes.'' However, these changes may make them feel worth it, like somebody cares. Most importantly, more parents might get involved and grasp that school is worth it.

So, I'm suggesting that Allen's problems are too great for Allentown to solve alone. It requires not only groups like Education 2010 but the entire Lehigh Valley and state. I suggest statewide education reform that would pool the property tax of the entire state and distribute it based on the needs of each school.

An under-educated population hurts everyone -- not just the cities. It may not seem fair; you earned your income and the house you bought, why should it go to someone else's child? However, if you give a child an education it provides an opportunity to escape the vicious circle of poverty and an uneducated life. You have the opportunity to change the fate of thousands of children by challenging the system in place. Let's remember the African village where not everyone had a child, but still sacrificed almost everything to give all children a chance at something better.

Kate McMahon of Allentown is a junior at William Allen High School.

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