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Opinion

The Podium

Education and the mayoral candidates

Boston heard a lot about education in the preliminary mayoral campaign. In the final, state Representative Martin Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly need to aim higher.

To increase high school graduation rates, and to develop a route out of poverty by promoting jobs for the parents of schoolchildren, far more than bare-bones education policies are essential.

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In the classroom, intensive drilling on language arts and math, to haul students over the MCAS hurdle and get them a diploma, leaves too many behind. For students who live in poverty, and face a variety of resulting issues that affect their academic performance, it is essential to avoid simplistic, one-shot “reforms” that do not address poverty or lack of English proficiency.

Rather, comprehensive approaches are needed whereby public schools provide:

-- Health care, universal mental health promotion and social services;

-- Greatly enhanced efforts to ensure that English language learners thrive more quickly, as well as recognition of the assets that bilingual students bring to our global economy;

-- More effective individualized dropout prevention and recovery initiatives connected to policies that diminish suspensions and expulsions.

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At home, a new approach is needed to reduce family poverty, a major contributor to classroom difficulties. The Massachusetts poverty rate jumped from 9.9 percent to 11.9 percent at the start of the Great Recession, and it has stayed stubbornly near 12 percent even as the economy has improved during the last three years.

Partly responsible are policies that push poor persons to work when only minimum- or low-wage jobs, often part-time and without benefits, are available, jobs that offer scarce hope for income growth.

Multiple studies by the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy have found that such policies fail to lift families economically. The result is poverty in spite of employment.

To compound the problem, according to one of the Center’s studies, such jobs can actually harm the next generation’s health, education, and overall development. Low-income youth face more challenges than do higher-income youth in staying connected to and graduating from high school. More than half of the students who drop out of high school are students of color and most are low-income. The impact of this non-graduation is immediate in terms of access to employment.

The connection between poverty and low educational performance begins early. In Boston, over a quarter of pre-schoolers live in poverty, and many are already behind when they start school. Mayor Menino and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, to their credit, created the Thrive by 5 collaboration with the goal of having every child ready for school success when they enter kindergarten by 2018.

Shouldn’t Walsh or Connolly be able to reach this goal before his first term ends?

In tackling Boston’s K-12 system, the new mayor can be guided by a wealth of new research that

points to long-term strategies, often involving structural change. For instance, it is now understood that the cognitive and emotional components of brain development are intertwined, and should not be considered in isolation. Social-emotional learning programs, currently implemented by the Boston Public

Health Commission in some Boston Public Schools, should be funded for the future. Studies by UMB researchers at the Gaston Institute found that schools that produce good outcomes for English language learners create a supportive emotional climate as well as teaching academic topics.

In the arena of higher education, the new mayor will have less authority; still, he will need to

strengthen partnerships with UMass Boston, Roxbury Community College, Bunker Hill Community College and the private schools, and also to lobby to recoup dwindling state funding for the public colleges. With its knowledge-based economy, Massachusetts, has unaccountably cut support for higher education dramatically — by 31 percent since 2001.

Through the naming of a new superintendent, the appointment of School Committee members, and his public advocacy for comprehensive policies, the new mayor will have the power to shape the future of public education in Boston -- pre-school through high school -- fundamentally.

This is not an opportunity, it is a responsibility. Both Walsh and Connolly have embraced it, which is an important start. Now they need to go deeper, to talk in detail about the connections between poverty and poor educational performance, and the equally-strong connections between good schools and good jobs.

If the candidates are serious about making Boston’s public schools a model of quality urban education on par with the region’s great universities, they should spell out their plans, boldly and in detail, now.

That way, whoever wins will have a mandate to get it done.

Evelyn Frankford is a visiting fellow at the Center for Social Policy, at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.

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