Editorial: We can't afford to ignore the low-income students in our schools
"The stakes," says Kenneth Ender, president of Harper College in Palatine, "are very high."
When he says that, Ender is not limiting his view to the comparatively narrow challenge facing the community college.
When he says that, he is talking about our promise to our kids. He is talking about their educations.
That promise is not a contract that has been written or signed. It's not even something that's spoken.
But it is real. And sacred. It is a parent's vow at the birth of a child. It is one generation's commitment to the one that will follow.
Our Promise to Our Kids: We will sacrifice for your futures. We will create opportunities for you that are better than those we enjoyed. We will strive that your lives become richer than ours.
Behind that promise is a commitment to education. Good schools were a fundamental reason for the mass migration to the suburbs of the past seven decades. We in the suburbs believe in good schools, and we've invested heavily in them. We believe that a solid education is the foundation of a successful life. And we've witnessed the truth of that in our own lives and in the lives around us.
The stakes, as Ender says, are very high. On a personal level, our children and our grandchildren are at stake. The opportunities they have for success and happiness are at stake in their educations.
The stakes in that promise are the lives of every single child in our schools.
But today, generations are at risk, and they are not risked at some far-off place. They are at risk in the suburbs, with rising numbers of suburban poor who by nature of their income levels face obstacles to educations that those of us blessed with better circumstances take for granted.
If you want to see the faces of at-risk young people up close, go to our schools. These are suburban schools, some of the best schools in the country, with some of the best teachers in the world. But they are teeming today with at-risk students.
One of our editors, Tim Broderick, deals in data and he wondered at the implications of this increase in suburban poverty. So he built a groundbreaking index to see what role income level plays in student achievement.
What he found was stunning -- not so much the predictable idea that income levels affect performance, but the dramatic extent to which they do.
He examined the past 10 years and found a direct correlation between student test scores and income levels. Not just at the lowest income levels or the highest. But at all levels.
And in 10 years, it has never changed.
For 10 years, you could predict where a school district would finish in test score rankings based exclusively on the percentage of students qualifying for the free meal program.
The depth of the challenge is both intimidating and inspiring.
If we fail to meet it, we will fail children, to be sure. But we also will fail a generation -- and thereby leave the next generation with a similar intimidating challenge.
Meanwhile, don't be mistaken. It's not just the poor who will suffer. All of us will. The ripple effects on the community will be pervasive -- from lack of skilled workforces, to lowered economic growth, to the need for support systems for the poor, the rise in crime, the loss in community harmony.
Generations are at risk.
"The stakes," as Ender says, "are very high."