New school year an opportunity to rethink priorities
Today is the first day of classes for Sonora High School and its feeder elementary schools, meaning that all but a few of the more than 14,000 public high school and elementary school students in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have begun another year of studies.
What for years was a post-Labor Day ritual has shifted into the heat of mid-August. But that doesn't make the beginning of school any less exciting or nerve-racking for students, parents, teachers and administrators.
The first day brings a brand new crop of quaking kindergartners and tearful moms, bevies of know-it-all first-graders and high school sophomores and a classes of eighth-graders and seniors ready to enjoy a year as kings and queens of the campus.
The first day of school also brings anxious young teachers on their first assignments, new principals and new superintendents.
It's also time for hope: Last year's lackluster students get a new crack at the honor roll and teams be they the Wildcats, Bullfrogs, Bears or Redskins start their quest for league or section honors with a clean slate.
It is also a time for schools themselves to strive anew for excellence.
Many districts are moving in the right direction, with new or remodeled classrooms outfitted with state-of-the-art computer equipment. Even older campuses are being booted up, and most parents by now know that a desktop or a laptop is all but essential for research and homework beyond the fourth-grade.
But computer literacy, although essential in the 21st century job market, doesn't alone guarantee success. Built-in calculators and spell-checkers do not mean that English and mathematics and the critical thinking their study imparts have lost relevance.
The English language is how we communicate, and doing so effectively and persuasively is valuable in any field of endeavors.
Mathematics, however, is the lingua franca of a world that is becoming increasingly technological. That's why the math scores in the latest round of state Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, tests are cause for concern both locally and throughout California.
Algebra I scores are particularly egregious:
Fewer than 40 percent of Tuolumne and Calaveras county eighth-graders scored proficient or better on the test. This is a tick below the statewide average for which we cannot be proud.
But through the 11th grade, those already low algebra scores plummet. Not one Tuolumne County 11th-grader taking the test, for instance, made the state grade. Things weren't a whole lot better in Calaveras County, where just 7 percent ranked proficient or better; or throughout California, where just 5 percent of students were up to par.
Although algebra scores were clearly the worst, math standards scores posted by elementary school students showed a steady decline from second grade (64 percent proficient in Tuolumne County, 57 percent in Calaveras and 59 percent statewide) to eighth (41, 43 and 39 percent respectively).
Only 15 percent of Tuolumne County 11th-graders were proficient in geometry, a score that looks good only when contrasted with Calaveras (2 percent) and the state average (6).
Of course school-by-school and district-by-district scores vary, with some posting higher-than-average scores and others making significant gains. But the overall picture is bleak.
Although there is certainly room for English improvement (proficiency here and statewide is hovering in the mid-30s for 11th-graders), math needs immediate attention.
With so few elementary and high school students doing well in math, the number choosing engineering majors in college has dropped. Today about 100,000 fewer college students are studying engineering than were a decade ago. Also, about a quarter of today's engineering students are from abroad.
This is happening just as the projected need for engineers in American business is on the rise. The shortage is even being felt here in the Mother Lode, where public works departments struggle to find qualified engineers.
It all doubles back to second-grade, where math interest and proficiency at least according to the STAR tests is at its peak. It's up to our parents, guardians, mentors and teachers to build on, and encourage that early enthusiasm and turn out students that are interested and engaged in science and math.
It's not a cliche to say our future depends on it.
Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.