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‘What If We Took Research Seriously?’

The opinion piece below appeared Nov. 19 in the Charleston Gazette. It highlights Generation Charleston’s recent Education Forum, which brought together minds to come up with potential solutions for the state’s high school dropout rate.

By Dawn Miller

“What if we took research seriously?” asks the senior scholar at Child Trends. She was talking about preventing teen pregnancy, but her question has many applications.

For example, I recently had the opportunity to participate in an event organized by Generation Charleston. Scores of people of all ages gathered downtown to brainstorm and strategize for 30 minutes on an important topic: About 6,900 West Virginia students drop out of high school every year. That’s about one in four students who enter high school but don’t come out the other end. What on earth do you do about that?

Good on Generation Charleston for getting conscientious people together to identify one solid recommendation to take to the Legislature. It was a nice crowd, full of people from the school system to the justice system, for-profit, non-profit and government.

My hangup is that there is no shortage of knowledge or even fresh ideas for solving this problem, or most of the problems kids face.

On the contrary. We know which solutions work in which situations. Let’s pick a proven tactic and do it.

I like this one: Make kids go to school. When they don’t show up for school, find out why, help the family fix that problem, and get the kid back in class.

West Virginia tried this approach in a big way a decade ago. You may recall that federal welfare reform ended monthly checks for millions of people. The deal was that the savings would be spent on real solutions to help families improve their lives so they would no longer depend on welfare checks. States were free to risk this fat pot of federal money to try new things to see what worked.

One of the things West Virginia tried was getting absent kids back in school.

The Truancy Diversion Social Work program started in Mineral County in 1999 under Gov. Cecil Underwood. The results were so good the state contracted with Children’s Home Society and the Alliance for Children to expand to 49 counties. They planted social workers in schools. They monitored absences and tardies and then tracked down the students and families, at home if necessary to sort out the problem.

Their favorite example is buying a kid an alarm clock, but most nuts were tougher to crack. They encountered kids with no water at home to wash with and kids with no clothes that fit. There were kids who weren’t put to bed at regular hours or who couldn’t put themselves to bed because of their parents’ chaotic lives and disruptive habits. Social workers helped parents to solve problems and send their children to school.

The result? Fantastic. Absences dropped. Grades improved.

So, naturally, the state cut the funding. That was Paul Nusbaum’s watch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources under Gov. Bob Wise.

Nusbaum said it was too expensive. Of course, it did cost about $6 million at its peak when it served 49 counties and about 6,000 kids and their families.

Interestingly, that’s very close to the 6,900 annual high school dropouts that Bob Wise now campaigns to save as executive director of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Only Wood County kept their program, first at nine schools, now only at Van Devender Middle. Wood used federal Title 1 education money, set aside for schools with high concentrations of low-income students.

In the early days, the program kept great data. They could tell you how many students who received intensive services raised their grades (42 of 48 at Van Devender in 2002-03 for example). They were beginning to track kids over time, said Scott Boileau, executive director of the Alliance for Children.

But as the data didn’t matter to those making policy or dishing out money, workers stopped wasting time collecting it.

“One of things that really infuriates me is how many times in your career have you heard, ‘You can’t measure anything in social services to start with?’ Then when we do, we still don’t get it,” Boileau said.

Helping families send their kids to school seems to be a program everyone loves but no one wants to own.

Mark Manchin tried to get it going in McDowell County. No success.

In 2009, Boileau was in another meeting sponsored by Gov. Joe Manchin’s office. About 500 people who want to make a difference gathered at the Charleston Civic Center, and out of the blue someone said the state should revive Truancy Diversion.

“There was spontaneous applause,” Boileau recalled.

Last year, Mishaela J. Duran of the National Parent Teacher Association included the Van Devender Truancy Diversion program in her testimony to the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies as one of several examples across the country of efforts that prevent juvenile delinquency, truancy and youth crime.

This year, there were even some conversations about it with Manchin’s Bureau for Children and Families inside DHHR.

Now there is a new governor. As a state senator, Earl Ray Tomblin tried to save a portion of Truancy Diversion back when the Wise Administration killed it.

So, Boileau will make the case again.

“I don’t want you to think I’m cynical about this,” he said. “I’ll go back. I’m just not that optimistic. We’ve jumped through every hoop imaginable.”

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