November 25, 2012

Improved literacy, dropout prevention are vital goals for Tucson, Arizona Daily Star

By Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Special to the Arizona Daily Star

The Census Bureau recently identified Tucson as the sixth-poorest large metropolitan area in the United States.

This is unacceptable.

What we need to work on as a region, and what I intend to do as mayor, are two things: increase prosperity and reduce poverty. These two tracks are complementary, but they are not the same.

We need to think both long and short term. This problem did not happen overnight. A solution won’t either.

This is the first in a series of columns where I propose ways to work together as a community – in government, business and non-profits, in our public and private lives – to increase prosperity and reduce poverty in our region.

Future columns will discuss infrastructure and trade, our local safety net – food, health, housing, transportation, programs for youth, seniors and other vulnerable populations – and our jobs pipeline.

Today, I will discuss education. Why education first? It is through education, literacy and job skills that we move from poverty to prosperity. The numbers are indisputable. The more education people have, the more likely they are to be financially secure.

Our children need to see that, whatever their circumstances, a good education – college or vocational – is their ticket to a good life.

This is why Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and I created the Mayors’ Education Roundtable, a bipartisan group that has attracted mayors from around the state, to bring more resources to bear in support of our schools. As mayors, we will continue to make the case to our Legislature that we cannot attract good employers without an educated workforce.

Arizona’s funding of education – second to last out of all 50 states – is no way to increase prosperity, or reduce poverty. Here in Tucson, my own education task force, made up of leaders from our education community, is working at both ends of the K-12 spectrum: achieving reading by third grade and dropout prevention and recovery.

My office will help organizations with proven programs work together to reach these long- and short-term goals.

Third grade is when children go from learning to read to reading to learn. Children who read poorly in third grade are much more likely to read poorly in high school, and to drop out.

Initially, we will work on increasing the number of literacy volunteers, supporting existing literacy programs and extending their reach to after school, summer and family programs.

On dropout prevention and recovery, we will work to identify children at risk of dropping out or who have dropped out, intervene, and get them into a program to continue their education. We will raise funds to pay for GED testing, with the goal of increasing GED graduates.

Tucson can do this. Our United Way has committed to making reading by third grade its top funding priority. Local success story Literacy Connects has combined expertise from five nonprofits that share a common goal of literacy for all.

I expect the business community to be leaders in this effort, with advocacy, funding and volunteering. Here in Pima County, we should have learned the lesson long ago that we have to work together to help ourselves.

The business community knows that we all benefit from an educated workforce. They bring better jobs and increased prosperity to our region.

And increased literacy lowers crime rates. The old adage of schools versus prisons still holds true. If we fail to invest in the one, we will have to invest in the other.

Social problems are kaleidoscopic; pieces may shift, yet they remain connected. To have lasting impact, target the connections. Low literacy and high dropout rates are connected.

Our region’s economic condition has been decades in the making. Yet, even to complex problems, solutions can sometimes be straightforward – if based in evidence and not just ideology.

We know reading by third grade and graduation from high school are crucial educational milestones. There are things we, as ordinary people, can make happen, by advocating, funding, or volunteering. We can increase literacy. We can reduce dropout rates. Let’s make these goals a priority.

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