Column: Programs needed for children of all abilities

By Jill Larsen – Guest Columnist

Don Heinzman’s recent article about services for at-risk teens highlighted important programs through the schools and community to help youth.

The article quoted Joe Meuwissen, a Bloomington schools psychologist, as saying “Elective classes are being cut that ‘different’ students could take.”

The students should not be labeled as different. They may have different learning styles, interests, mental or physical stresses, home life, social or cultural backgrounds or skills that the traditional school setting cannot effectively address.

How can we motivate or engage students to stay in school? Let me give you an example.

My son was at risk of dropping out of high school. He had been identified as gifted and talented in elementary school, but by the first year of high school was struggling with academic courses. School was frustrating and discouraging.

Thankfully the public school he attended offered many technical courses. Woods, metals, auto body and auto mechanics at all levels were taken in addition to remedial levels of the core academic requirements. Through exploration in career-oriented classes, my son discovered that he had a knack for working with anything mechanical, could experiment and tinker hands on in these classes, and actually excel at something in school.

A fantastic teacher directed him to courses that matched my son’s tactile learning style. Through an insightful and informed counselor, he was directed to the Post Secondary Enrollment Options Program, where he was able to complete some college level courses at Hennepin Technical College while still in high school.

After graduating from high school, he was able to continue his technical education at Hennepin Technical College and was employed full-time before he even finished his program. This was an at-risk teen for whom the system resources worked. We need to be proactive in getting all teens to be successful in high school. Why? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data for 1998-2009 shows the importance of a high school diploma. Just 55 percent of individuals with less that a high school diploma were employed versus 75 percent for high school grads, and 80 percent employment rates for those with some college.

According to the Wall Street Journal, there is a huge economic impact for the individual who doesn’t complete high school, averaging $300,000 in lost earnings over a lifetime. In Texas, dropouts represent about 75 percent of the state prison inmates. The loss of tax revenue and purchase power, and the increased need for social programs and prison costs impact the state and U.S. economy.

We as parents, teachers, administrators, legislators and residents need to be sure students are given every opportunity to find something they can be passionate about, excel at or strive for in order to be successful in school. Urge your school district and legislators to continue funding electives and programs for children of all abilities and aptitudes.

It is interesting to note that in the same issue as Don Heinzman’s column was a photo of Sen. Al Franken visiting a technical class at Kennedy High School. The original article associated with the photo was about the business sector and the need for employees to have a certain set of skills. It is just such classes that have been cut due to funding and school schedule changes.

Tell teens about the Post Secondary Enrollment Options Program as a means of further exploring interests or talents. The placement rate at Hennepin Technical College within one year of graduating and related to the program of study was 99.2 percent for the 2009-10 school year. The height of the recession and 99 percent with jobs in their field of study.

There will be something that piques a child’s interest that will help engage and motivate them in continuing their education through high school and maybe beyond. We will all benefit from a well-educated society, and that starts with getting involved with young people and helping to meet the needs of all children.

Jill Larsen is a Lincoln High School graduate and parent of two Jefferson High School graduates.