JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Let's solve the school absenteeism problem
Education, for me, is all about dreaming the impossible dream and then trying to make the impossible dream possible. I don't think I am alone in this. So, let's try to make an impossible dream come true.
Absenteeism is a huge, time consuming, seemingly unsolvable problem in many k-12 schools and colleges. If we would lick the absenteeism problem, we could lick the high school dropout problem and more students would graduate from high school and college.
A student is chronically absent when he or she misses more than 10 percent of the school year for any reason. Native Americans have the highest rate of absenteeism of any ethnic group at 38% and they also have the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic group at about 53%. The statewide average for graduation is around 82%.
Thanks to the efforts of educators we are getting better at graduating more students and keeping more students in school but absenteeism still prevails.
We have all been in a shoe store where the salesperson asks us our shoe size and what kind of shoe we want and then brings us those shoes to try on. If we ask for a size nine, the salesperson might bring us a nine, nine and a half and an eight and a half. We try on the shoes and we choose the ones that fit the best.
What the sales person does not do is to bring us a size eight shoe and force the shoe on our foot regardless of whether it fits or not.
We know there are many reasons why students don't show up every day. Poverty, with all of its complications, is a big one. When we solve the poverty problem, we will solve lots of other educational problems. Transportation, family issues, lack of self-confidence all contribute to absenteeism. For many, the absent students tend to be square pegs. They just don't fit into the round holes we try to put them into no matter how hard we try to push and pull and squeeze. These square peg students get frustrated and just stop coming to school.
What can we do to keep not only Native students in school but all students? Could it be that we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?
Some of our brightest and most creative people were square pegs like Thomas Edison (home schooled), boxer/salesman George Foreman (high school dropout), movie director Quentin Tarantino (high school dropout), hair stylist Vidal Sassoon (school dropout) and Bill Gates (college dropout). They didn't fit into system so you might say they created their own system where they could succeed. How many Thomas Edisons or Bill Gates do we lose each year because we force them out of schools and colleges?
In the mid 1960s, an experimental city was to be built in northern Minnesota near Swatara, which is south and east of Bemidji in Aitkin County. It was known as MXC (Minnesota Experimental City). The entire city was to be enclosed by one of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes at a cost of $10 billion. Unfortunately, there was too much opposition to make this dream a reality.
MXC had many interesting and futuristic features. For example, there were to be no schools or colleges. The entire city was a school and a college. Learning and not schooling was to take place everywhere.
Could a version of MXC be put in place today in Beltrami County? Just to stimulate some thinking outside the box to solve the absentee issue, let's use Red Lake Nation College, a small liberal arts college on the Red Lake Reservation, as an example.
Red Lake Nation College is a beautiful little school. It has a wonderful, dedicated staff. The facility is uniquely designed and is as attractive on the inside as it is on the outside. It sits on the shore of magnificent Red Lake. I call it the best-kept secret in northern Minnesota. Although it is open to all students, Native students predominantly attend it. Absenteeism is a challenge. Like most colleges, it, too, has its share of square pegs students.
What if the entire reservation was considered to be the college for these square peg students? What if rather than trying to fit the students into the existing college, we designed the college to fit them?
What if there were satellite centers throughout the reservation located in the community centers (Little Rock, Red Lake, Redby and Ponemah). What if rather than meet in the main college, an instructors would meet the students in these centers. A satellite center could also be in the student's kitchen or a picnic table in the backyard.
The obvious advantage of this experimental program would be that the student would never be absent because the whole reservation would be the college or school. Performance would be based on successful completion of a given number of projects or competencies aligned to the class(es) the student was taking. Isn't that what we really want, proof of learning? Why do we penalize a student for being absent and tardy when it has nothing to do with whether or not they can perform?
Obviously there would be a lot more involved, but the important thing is we need to begin asking how can we help these square peg students find success in some version of a MXC concept? In the words of Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Shenandoah," "If we don't try, we don't do and if we don't do, what are we here for?" I think we are here to help all students find success in school regardless of what it looks like.
Riddle: Why did the clock go to the principal's office? (For tocking too much!) We need to stop penalizing students for being absent and look at new ways to bring learning to them.
We are now at 206 supporters of Project Graduate. Some more recent supporters are Slims, DaRoos Pizza in Clearbrook, MNDOT, and Gym Bin.
We will graduate 100% if our students when we:
1. Solve the absentee problem in our schools and colleges.
2. Help raise the self-esteem level of students.
3. Build schools around the needs of the students.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.