Annually, residents of Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 lament its low graduation rate. Annually, that rate is compared unfavorably to other schools in the area. Annually, explanations are made and strategies reworked.

The next year, the process is repeated.

There is no doubt that graduating from high school is an important goal for students and parents. The Economist magazine last month pegged the average lifetime difference in earnings between a high school graduate and a dropout as $260,000. That figure was for 2005; it hasn't shrunk since then. The value varies with the potential of individual students and with regional and local economies, but there's no disputing that dropping out is a life-changing decision.

There's also little question that Re-1 is trying hard to build paths to graduation for all its students. Guidance counselors strive to encourage goals and dreams, and they work with students to create plans for achieving them.

But the third important fact is that the culture of the district creates challenges different from those other districts face.

That idea is often used to point an accusing finger toward the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, a convenient scapegoat when it comes to statistics about educational achievement. Locals would do well to acknowledge that the problem is far broader and often considerably closer to home. The graduation rate belongs to the whole community.

No one doubts that the decision to stay in school or drop out has a lot to do with the degree of family support. Children of parents who finished high school are more likely to finish also, just as children of college-educated parents are more likely to earn degrees. Being a member of the first generation to reach a new level is difficult, because families have not blazed the trail and may not know how to help their students succeed, even in elementary school.

Parents also may not see the potential benefits. They may fear that education may undermine the values they want to instill in their children or will price them out of the local job market and lure them far from home. Parents may be too busy struggling to earn a living; they may have a variety of problems that hamper effective parenting.

That's where a community can help. Community members can model the benefits of education and guide students past the impediments. They can insist that their part-time student workers stay in school in order to keep their jobs; they can insist that their older workers show a diploma or GED. They can explain the relevance of skills learned in high school. They can show, concretely, how finishing high school predicts future success.

In short, a community can help create an environment in which achievement is celebrated and students who falter are assisted.

The benefits can include a better-educated workforce and more vibrant economy, less delinquency and crime, delayed parenthood, more civic participation, plus all the less tangible benefits of education. All are worth the investment required to gain them.

The district's taxpayers have voted to build a new high school. They shouldn't shy away from the even more important work of preparing students for productive lives.

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