By Shelley Hoss
Published in the Orange County Register on March 18, 2013
Want a solution to the dropout crisis? Teach kids to read before kindergarten.
Imagine if there were a problem that affected one in three high school students (approximately 4 million students a year) resulting in issues that cost U.S. taxpayers more than $8 billion a year? And what if that problem were almost guaranteed to be cyclical, gathering momentum with each new generation? Would it warrant our attention as a critical issue? Of course it would.
That problem is our high school dropout rate. High school dropouts face higher unemployment and greater poverty. They’re more likely to wind up on public assistance, and, statistically speaking, their earning potential is low. Even more alarming: 59 percent of those who drop out probably will be incarcerated at some point in their life.
The California Department of Education reports an overall drop-out rate for Orange County of 9.5% (2010-11), but many experts believe that number understates the problem. In the same report, Santa Ana Unified School District is identified as having the county’s highest drop-out rate, at 13.4 percent. Though better than the shocking state average of 14.7 percent, it still means that roughly one in seven students in Santa Ana is not graduating high school.
"We have a very high dropout rate in Orange County,” says Paula Mathis, board of directors, Orange County Head Start, “And this concerns me, not just for the kids who drop out. Those kids are going to be parents some day, and if they don't have an education, it's going to be more difficult for their children to get an education, so it perpetuates itself.”
Like most complex issues, dropping out can be affected by many variables, including a lack of perceived relevance of their education, personal or family issues and academic struggles.
However, there is one solution that can have a direct effect on the last factor, and it begins before kindergarten: early literacy.
According to a comprehensive study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation on how reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation, children not proficient in reading by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than children who read at or above grade level. Remarkably, if they live in poverty, they are 13 times more likely to drop out.
Nearly half—45 percent— of Orange County third graders are not reading at a proficient level.
There is a solution. Research shows that children who attend high-quality preschool are ahead in early reading and math skills, an advantage that continues through their K-12 schooling and into adulthood.
Unfortunately, Orange County has only enough licensed, center-based preschool spaces to accommodate half of our age-eligible children (3 and 4 years old). Even if we had the spaces available, many Orange County parents simply cannot afford private preschool education, and those are the children most at risk—facing poverty, lower literacy rates among parents and English language learning challenges to boot.
Fortunately, teaching a child to read is not an insurmountable problem. It is a natural extension of their processing of language and decoding the world around them that begins at birth. They just need some help with their A, B, C’s.
Local nonprofits are tackling this challenge with encouraging results through programs such as Readiness on the Road, offered by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove. The program serves families of preschoolers from ages 2 to 5 years of age, and offers school-readiness and parenting classes open to the public in Anaheim, Westminster, Santa Ana and Stanton.
These programs provide parent education and opportunities for parents and children to learn together. And it’s working. In the 2011–12 school year, 398 children completed school readiness programs, and 367 children received assessments to determine levels of learning and functioning to better prepare them for future academic success.
By supporting successful programs such as these, we can help ensure that our students—and future generations—can fulfill their full potential. For more information about closing the education achievement gap, visit ConnectOC.org.
Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at Shelley.Hoss@oc-cf.org.