Falling through the safety net

Falling through the safety net

- in Fitzsimon File

While House Democrats battle among themselves over a revenue package and Republicans stand paradoxically against both deep budget cuts and raising the revenue to prevent them, concern grows across the state about what the final budget will actually mean to communities across North Carolina.

Unless things change soon, it seems likely to make it harder to address what both Democrats and Republicans tell us is one of their top priorities, keeping kids from dropping out of high school.

Almost a third of students who enter the ninth grade do not receive a high school diploma four years later.  Roughly half of the African-American males in the ninth grade won't graduate in four years, perhaps the most scandalous statistic about North Carolina, condemning thousands of students of color to a life of struggles that high school graduates are far less likely to face.

The House budget does include more funding for dropout prevention grants, but that is far outweighed by the effects of the recession on families and the massive cuts in education, human services, and juvenile justice programs.

Communities in Schools President Linda Harrill says that workers with the group recently had to convince a high school student to stay in school who wanted to drop out and get a job because his father had been laid off.

High school students are now staying home to take care of a younger brother or sister because affordable child care is not available and their mother has to work to keep the family afloat.

The budget under consideration by the House reduces funding for Smart Start and child care subsidies. The need is growing and the budget is shrinking.

Harrill remembers helping one student who would never look up in class and fell far behind in his work, putting him at risk of dropping out. It turns out the student was ashamed of his rotting teeth.

After a few trips to a dentist, his teeth and his performance in school improved. The current House budget would cut the oral health program for kids.

The latest Communities in Schools newsletter tells the story of a Charlotte student who was born to a 17-year-old mother and a father who wasn't around much, making it easy for her to head down the wrong path.

Communities in Schools started working with her in middle school. She recently received her master's degree in social work from UNC-Greensboro.

Each student they try to convince to stay in school has a unique story and needs individual attention to find out what makes them consider dropping out. So do the kids who have already left high school who they try to get to return.

That's where school nurses come in, helping students access programs like Health Choice that provide health care for children in working poor families. Budget writers are considering cutting school nurses and freezing Health Choice so nobody else can enroll.

A new report by Action for Children says that 40,000 children in the state were affected by housing foreclosures in 2008.  That's more kids and more families who need help meeting their basic needs, more students now facing new stresses and pressures in high school, while the services created to help them are on the chopping block in the General Assembly.

Both the House and Senate budgets abolish Support our Students (SOS), a 15-year-old afterschool program in 92 counties that works with at-risk kids to keep them out of trouble and off the streets. SOS helped 14,000 at-risk kids last year. More at-risk kids need help now and the program is going away.

Harrill says there is no silver bullet that will magically fix everything. Every student needs something different, dental care, eyeglasses, counseling, something productive to do in the afternoon.

Almost every part of the safety net for kids is torn in the budget now under consideration in the House.

A reasonable revenue package would patch some of them, but huge, new holes will remain and students will fall through.

How can we stand for that?