THE REGULARS: The importance of our public school system | Columnists

My youngest child recently graduated from the same high school I attended. This step made me reflect on the upbringing that I and my children experienced in Sioux City.

Our community went through quite a bit of upheaval when I attended school in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Population decline meant that I attended five schools over an eight-year period.

Regardless of the building or the different socio-economic status of the students, I had access to quality and committed teachers. Although I faced challenges, I learned enough skills to graduate magna cum laude from Drake University.

At the same time, I recognized that I had support that others did not. Factors like a stable, intact family with grandparents in town, all of whom emphasized the importance of education, were not and are not universal.

Luckily, both of my kids had the same family support structure (with long-time educators like grandparents) that I had in their K-12 school journey. Their academic success is demonstrated by things like Phi Beta Kappa membership in Iowa State for one and an ACT score in the top five percent for the other (pardon the parental pride). While the quality and commitment of educators has remained high, there have been significant changes in the educational environment they have experienced.

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The children go to new, renovated facilities where the heat and cold have not disrupted lessons. I remember visiting the old Irving Elementary where the door to the third floor was often left open to minimize heat upstairs, but was needed downstairs.

Today, students have access to courses that offer high school and college credits. This lowers the costs of pursuing higher education and provides the opportunity to earn the degrees needed to work. Offerings like a career academy expose students to the work environment and help prepare them for the real world.

A downside now compared to when I attended was the reduced foreign language offering. French, German and Spanish were offered then, compared to only Spanish now. In an age of global connection, it’s a shame that one of the largest districts in the state isn’t able to offer a wider offering.

Schools face considerable challenges that they have not always faced. Providing education to all students, regardless of their intellectual development, has not always been a task. While schools have had to work with students from diverse economic and linguistic backgrounds, they have not had as much diversity or the requirements to graduate all students. My parents noticed that many of their classmates had dropped out during or before high school because they could earn a salary to support themselves without graduating. This is no longer true.

Schools must try to meet 100% of the needs of students and families. Politicians need only focus on getting just over 50% support from those who vote. Unfortunately, some seek support through unsubstantiated allegations and accusations of a “sinister agenda”.

Examples of individuals and districts going beyond what the community finds comfortable are occurring. Instances of not doing enough also occur. It is easier to tear down than to build or fix. But this is where true leadership must step in and engage for the good of all.

I saw a diverse group of recent graduates from North High walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. I also noted the pride their families took in this achievement. Many of these students would have had no options and limited opportunities without our public school system. Their talents have been nurtured through investments from our community and our state. What happens to future young people depends on our decisions about appropriate investments and accountability.

Sioux City resident Steve Warnstadt is the government affairs coordinator for Western Iowa Tech Community College. He is a former Democratic state senator and retired Army National Guard Brigadier General. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of a son and a daughter.

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