Can Schools Profit From Nonprofits?

A friend of mine recently went to his kid’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony, which as these celebrations go, seemed to me a tad excessive. Remember when high school and college graduations were the only actual cap-and-gown affairs?

I pondered the congratulate-your-kid era momentarily before considering the other potential message: What if the subtext is that this is the highest we expect Clark County kids to climb? Based on district performance, sweet child, we’d like to snap a cap-and-gown photo before you realize your statistical destiny, drop out and overfill the jail.

Alas—this year brings us some good education news, on top of budget cuts and teacher layoffs and the droning reality of our long underperforming test scores: Clark County School District’s high school graduation rates rose from 59 percent to 65 percent, early tabulations show.

OK, so the stat isn’t like districts in Wisconsin or New Jersey that sit near 90 percent, or quite within reach of the national average of around 75 percent, but it’s something. It’s progress.

Rising graduation rates—along with the need to make sure third graders can read before we cap-and-gown them—were recently the focus of more than 100 community activists and educators at the Together for Tomorrow Town Hall at the Fifth Street School. They discussed how to improve results—and the task wasn’t laid solely at the feet of teachers. Instead, they touted the “It Takes a Village” approach: In order to get our kids through the 12th grade literate, we should employ the cooperation of a network of nonprofits to support them.

To that end, Michael Robbins, senior adviser for nonprofit partnerships from the U.S. Department of Education, described efforts nationwide in which charities team with districts to focus on student outcomes. Those partnerships focus on attendance, behavior, course performance and college access. Cooperating agency speakers talked about helping kids with personal hygiene issues, food shortages and housing problems.

They’re indisputably solid goals—and an indication that apparently we can’t congratulate our kids into college.

It’s easy to blame whatever series of mysterious failures happen inside the institutions of public education—teachers teaching to the test or passively passing kids who shouldn’t be passed. But as the head of Communities in Schools described a high-schooler who nearly dropped out after being teased for having body odor, and hadn’t yet learned to bathe and use deodorant, it was a clear reminder that our issues aren’t just born in the classroom.

Nor should they be the responsibility of schools and charities alone—parents, of course, have the starring role, and the rest of us can’t shirk our place in supporting those parents. When the community has to work with the federal government to assign charities to finish raising the kids, isn’t there something inherently wrong with the community?

We’ve mastered the part that involves a party. Now, if we can figure out the rest.