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Taking a longer view in education

As another school year comes to a close, it’s once again time to take stock and reflect upon our progress toward building the future. For many years now, our schools have shown consistent, incremental improvement in a variety of areas, including graduation, dropout, attendance and suspension rates. Ventura County continues to surpass California averages for all of these indicators, and the same is true for our test scores. These gains are all the more impressive given that our English learner and special needs populations are on the rise despite shrinking enrollments in general. The most recent State of the Region Report from the Ventura County Civic Alliance contains a wealth of confirming statistics about our steady progress in education.

More than ever, we are providing alternative pathways and strategies which ignite students’ passions through career education programs in our high schools and – more recently – middle schools. Thanks in part to the partnerships between K-12 school districts and higher education, the number of associates degrees awarded this year was up 10.5 percent at Oxnard College, 25 percent at Moorpark College and an astounding 67 percent at Ventura College. Moreover, grant funding in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines now exceeds $100 million for our K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. That’s a lot of capital being used to prepare students to meet the needs of local employers, and it can’t come too soon. In addition to our largest employer, Naval Base Ventura County, there are scores of private firms clamoring to fill engineering and other high-tech occupations like manufacturing and information systems.

Is there more that we can be doing? Absolutely. We still have serious “achievement gaps” between higher and lower socioeconomic groups as well as demographic inequities. These issues are being specifically addressed through local school districts’ accountability plans, and the state is providing supplemental funding strictly for this work. But one of our best opportunities to level the playing field lies at the very beginning of the educational continuum – early childhood education. Investments at this stage result in both short and long-term gains not just for the child, but society as a whole, with some economic studies showing sevenfold returns. Sadly, our state has been slow to recognize this dynamic and the need for a sustained commitment to our youngest learners.

Fortunately, Ventura County is home to an organization that does see this need and is dedicated to expanding opportunity all the way from preschool through college and into the workforce. The Ventura County P-20 Council brings together leaders in the business, education and nonprofit sectors to help students prepare for college and attain the skills that local employers require. The P-20 Council has facilitated tens of millions of dollars in grants and supports programs to enhance early learning and STEM education. It also helps students navigate the complicated college financial aid process so more of them will be able to afford higher education. This level of collaboration is unique to our community and is helping ensure that Ventura County will have an educated workforce that’s ready for the local careers of today and the future.

In this age of prolific, rapidly-developing technology, we may have become overly dependent upon the instant gratification that these tools provide. All too often, we adopt a mindset which expects the same rate of change in our schools. This point of view fails to recognize that meaningful change in education takes time, patience and an understanding of the diverse needs of our students. The reality is more like the tortoise than the hare. Let us never forget the progress that’s already been made, the successes yet to come, and that public education is the common denominator which connects us all.

Stan Mantooth is the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools and current Chair of the Ventura County P-20 Council. This column originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.

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