Quality education could affect child well-being

Published 12:07am Sunday, November 24, 2013

The key to improving child well-being and poverty rates in Dallas County may be a quality education.

A study released Wednesday by VOICES for Alabama’s Children ranked Dallas County as the second worst county in the state for child well being. The study cited many different indicators, such as low weight births, births to unmarried teens and children in poverty. In two categories — births to unmarried teens and children in poverty — Dallas County ranked last in the state. In two other categories — vulnerable families and children in single-parent families — the county ranked in the bottom three.

Greene County was the only one ranked lower overall.

Though the study paints a bleak picture, Dallas County interim Superintendent of Education Don Willingham said a focus on education could improve the poverty rate long-term.

“Without a question, the more education you receive, the more opportunity you have in life,” Willingham said. “I think improving education in the area could be a way to combat poverty.”

But combatting poverty is often harder than it may seem, according to the county school’s homeless facilitator Dorothy Irvin.

“For the size of our school system, we have quite a large population of homeless students, about 30 percent,” Irvin said. “Because of their economic situation, they tend to focus on just the basic needs; education is not really a priority.”

Students from lower income families also tend to be slightly behind when entering kindergarten. Willingham said poor students don’t receive the same kinds of preschool education as students from wealthy or middle-class families and many can’t afford to pay for higher education.

To put all students on a level playing field, Dallas County Schools offer two different programs that allow students to attend classes at local colleges.

The first is a partnership between Wallace Community College and Tuskegee University. It allows students to receive an associate’s degree at the same time as a college diploma. The cost of the degree is paid for by the school system, Willingham said.

The second program, called dual enrollment, doesn’t develop a direct track for students to earn a degree. Instead students choose various classes to take at Wallace Community College.

Dallas County Schools is also preparing to offer an engineering program to Keith High School Students through Auburn University, though the final details are still pending, Willingham said.

Poverty isn’t the only stigma, schools battle. They also deal with dropouts.

“Let’s say there is an expecting mother and she has a child while still in high school,” Selma City Schools Superintendent of Education Gerald Shirley said. “They might not want to come back to school because of embarrassment.”

Dallas County’s overall graduation rate, including city and county schools, is 71.1 percent. The rate is slightly below the state’s average, and is the eleventh lowest in Alabama.

Students have the freedom to choose, but Shirley said school officials meet with potential dropouts to inform them of the negative affects.

“Before someone drops out, it’s required to have an exit conference,” he said. “We try to persuade the student and parent that the person still needs to be in school. I think of a quality education as the economic equalizer.”

Both superintendents said they are working to improve graduation rates, first and foremost. Willingham said an improved education level could bring in quality business and put more money in the pockets of Dallas County residents.

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