Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



Keeping Kids In School
by Mike Harpold


February 17, 2003
Monday - 4:40 pm

While I was eating at a local restaurant the other evening, the owner paused at my table to comment on some remarks I had made earlier in the day on the radio about our student dropout rate. "It's really sad," he lamented, "that Ketchikan has so little opportunity to
Mike Harpold

offer young people after high school."

His observation was the more remarkable because he himself had immigrated to the United States to find economic opportunity. He went on to describe the heavy level of drug use among Ketchikan's unemployed and underemployed youth.

I have had a theory on dropouts that runs something like this: For generations commercial fishing, logging and then the pulp mill provided the community with an ample number of well paying jobs that did not require completion of a high school education. Therefore there has been little incentive among young people who wanted to stay in Ketchikan to complete high school, and tacit approval by many of their families when they dropped out. But my friend at the restaurant had suggested another scenario; kids may be dropping out because their future here holds little or no promise.

When I got home I sat down at my computer and went to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development web site. I had poured over DEED statistics many times, but now I looked at them in a different light. Sure enough, Ketchikan's dropout rate, which had hovered at four to five percent in the first half of the decade of the '90's, leapt to 8.6% during school year '96-'97, the year the pulp mill closed and has continued high ever since. In school year '98-'99, a year our population stabilized after having dropped because of the pulp mill closure, we lost 118 of our seventh through twelfth grade students. The last year for which statistics are available, school year '99-'00, we lost 6.8%, or 82 students.

Let me put those statistics in some sort of perspective. Our dropout rate at 6.8% is three times higher than Klawock's at 2.1%, five times higher than Wrangell's at 1.2%, and two times higher than Sitka and Juneau at 3.1% and 3.7% respectively.

I cannot in the course of a column make a definitive case for any single reason why so many Ketchikan youth are leaving school prematurely. But I do believe fervently that the issue must be addressed. The loss of human potential in the community let alone the toll exacted on so many individual lives and families by youth who do not attain their potential is immense. Yet Ketchikan pretends nothing is amiss. Each year we rightly celebrate the success of the fifty or sixty percent of our graduating seniors who go off the island to colleges and universities. At the same time we ignore the fact that twice the number who go off to college remain here on the island, never graduating from high school. Last Spring's graduating class of 138, including Revilla and Correspondence, numbered 268 in their freshman year.

Dan Johnson at KTKN tells me that the Oregon town he lived in, which has a timber and commercial fishing economy similar to ours, starts working with kids to keep them in school as early as the third grade. That's the good news; there are things we can do to keep kids in school.

We know intuitively some of the steps we can take that have the potential to produce results. Vocational and technical offerings at the high school have shrunk to just auto shop and culinary arts. We need to re-institute wood shop, rebuild our maritime program, and develop other programs that will teach skills that are needed in our economy. And we need to put counselors back in our schools to work with and help our youth plan their way towards a promising future; we laid off our counselors, unbelievably, the summer before the pulp mill closed.

Most important of all, we need a community dialog on this issue which includes parents, educators, employers, social service agencies and the kids themselves. Our high dropout rate is not a school problem alone, but a community problem. But the school board needs to lead. For the past several years the school board has had as a goal, "Establish as a basis for understanding and develop a plan for addressing the dropout rate." Little has been done.

Fortuitously, the school district is at this moment developing a strategic plan which will include an action plan addressing the student drop out problem. The plan should be ready to go by April 15th., which will make it a little tight for this year's school budget planning cycle. Nonetheless, there are things we can accomplish this year. Last year the Borough Assembly reduced the borough's funding contribution by $500,000. By fully funding to the local contribution cap for the school district's '03-'04 budget, the district can begin to rebuild the high school's voc/tech offerings and rehire school counselors now. The school district administration needs to ask for and justify the funding level needed to accomplish these measures, and the school board and the community need to support the request.

Through inaction we stand to continue losing 80 to 120 kids every year. I don't want that number to include my kids or yours. You can help by talking about this problem within your church or business group, with your borough assembly and school board members, within your school Parent Teacher Associations, and most importantly within your family. If you would like to help further, volunteer to be a member of the Action Team to put together an action plan to deal with the dropout problem as part of the school district's strategic planning process. Call the district office at 247-2109, or call me. I'm in the book.


©Mike Harpold
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