By Christopher Smith
When talking about how to get students to become contributing members of society, Stephen Dolinger said he imagines a pipeline. But if education is the pipeline, then it’s currently leaking, he said, with poverty the biggest problem.
Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education — a nonprofit group that tries to get leaders in government, business and education to work together — is touring school districts in northwest Georgia this week. The tour continues today in Murray County.
When he visited the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy in Whitfield County on Tuesday afternoon, Dolinger said he was impressed and encouraged to see leaders from several different organizations together under one roof. Working as a team is a key to “insulate the pipeline,” he said, helping students, especially those in poverty, graduate.
“They are learning the value and wisdom of working as a team,” Dolinger said of leaders from the county and city of Dalton school systems, Dalton State College, the chamber of commerce and Mohawk and Shaw Industries, among others.
Teamwork is important, he said, when faced with a possible “trifecta” hit to the economy, potentially tied to Gov. Nathan Deal’s push for 250,000 additional college graduates by 2020.
Deal’s push brings with it an increased “rigor” to education, which could make it harder for most of Dalton’s Hispanic or low-income populations to graduate, Dolinger said. Those groups, which often overlap, struggle to graduate high school given current standards, he said.
“When you live in poverty, which you have a lot of in Dalton, and those in poverty are usually minority, you have to address that,” he said. “If you have kids — the ones graduating the least — representing a good part of your population, plus you increase the rigor of education, and you suddenly want more kids graduating college by 2020 — well, that’s a trifecta that could easily deep-six any community or economy.”
But Dolinger said seeing community leaders talking together Tuesday is a sign they can foster a “strong workforce for future jobs.”
“When you get into (economic) times like these, where there aren’t enough human and financial resources to go around — if you can leverage those things yourself and bring people together, pretty neat things can go on,” he said.
Barbara Ward, director of workforce development for the Dalton-Whitfield County Joint Development Authority, said such a gathering wouldn’t necessarily have happened a few years ago.
“This is the key,” she said. “We have to work together.”
Working together isn’t always as simple as it sounds, Dolinger said.
“It’s just hard for organizations to break out of their silos and work with each other,” he said. That’s mostly because of a lack of communication, or a lack of “a unifying leader,” he added.
But is unity alone enough to get more students graduating?
Dolinger said it’s a start, commending the local Readers to Leaders program. That program, which started in 2012, seeks to improve reading ability locally, using doctors’ offices and the community center, among other entities, in addition to schools. Reading on grade level by third grade is vital, local and state educators have long said, because most students who can read well before middle school get on a path to graduating high school and going to college.
Still, community leaders shouldn’t focus solely on the third grade standard, Dolinger said.
“You see a lot of different milestones you’ve got to meet,” he said. One in particular is making sure babies are born in healthy homes, he noted.
Katy Green, an Archway professional from the University of Georgia who joined the Readers to Leaders program this year, said officials are starting to look at how the program can help children under the age of 5.
Green said she is interested in partnering with health care leaders to make sure new and expecting mothers get the kind of care they need. Healthier babies tend to be smarter students because they “get the right nutrients for growth,” she said.
What that new program will look like isn’t clear yet, Green added, but it will exist to “connect” parents with doctors, particularly Hispanic mothers who don’t “always understand what to do to get health care even if they are covered (by insurance).”
Green said she is also looking for ways to get more parents to work with their children at home.
“I don’t think it’s that people devalue education, but sometimes they might perceive it as just the teacher’s job,” she said. “What we are saying is that there’s so much you can also do at home.”