According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. Recently, a community group took that old saying to heart.
Using a model developed by a similar study group in Jacksonville, Fla., Walla Walla's Community Council created a study group - a citizens' problem-solving think tank - to look at a different community issue every year.
This year, it was all about the region's 15,000 youngest citizens - the children.
"There's an old saying that if you want to learn about the health and civility of a village, look at the children," said Greg Forge, Community Council president. "Our regional village has some work to do."
The study area, bordered by Washington towns of Burbank and Dayton and the Snake River to Milton-Freewater, included two states and three counties.
Julie Reese, former director of Pendleton's Heritage Station, facilitated the study as executive director of the Community Council Study Committee.
The study group focused on what factors enrich or inhibit a child's educational experience. The 70 members of the study group tackled the topic tenaciously.
For 15 weeks straight, they listened to 35 speakers - educators, doctors, counselors, parents and others - speak about education, teen pregnancy, drop-out prevention, juvenile justice, mental health, early learning, homeless, parenting and other topics.
Brian Gabbard, lead teacher of the Pleasant View (alternative) School in Milton-Freewater talked about issues faced by many alternative students - lack of housing stability, drug/alcohol use, insufficient supervision, overwhelming family responsibilities.
Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the Umatilla-Morrow ESD, spoke on the effects of poverty on education.
One of the most poignant presentations featured two parents who children struggle with mental health issues.
"Shared learning - that's the secret sauce in our process," Forge said.
When the study group finished steeping in this pool of data and expertise, they spent nine more weeks forming conclusions and hammering out a list of recommendations. A 30-page booklet describes the process and lists conclusions and recommendations.
What became glaringly clear was how much early learning and a child's home life affects school performance. When a child is worried about basic needs such as food, housing or is lacking a loving home situation, education takes a back seat.
"Oftentimes, it's not a child's ability to learn," said Roger Bairstow, the study group's leader and official "herder of cats." "It's what's happening outside school."
One basic need, housing, or lack of housing, concerns the study group. The Walla Walla Housing Authority has a waiting list of about 1,800 families (44 percent with children) and the wait may be as long as five years. A 2008 survey by Walla Walla, 277 children were reported as homeless.
Other obstacles to a rich educational experience included a stressed mental health system, lack of foster care, high teenage pregnancy rate and quality licensed child care.
Things that seem to help children finish school included mentor programs, early learning experiences, parenting education and good mental health care.
Bairstow plugged early education to a crowd at the Walla Walla Community College campus Tuesday.
"When a student is not ready to enter kindergarten, he starts behind and stays behind," Bairstow said.
Mulvihill attended the report's unveiling. He credited the group for its thorough qualitative study and pure motives and said he hoped the group doesn't get disillusioned in the implementation process.
"You don't change things overnight," he said. "You get little tiny victories."
The Council's implementation committee (yet to be formed) will take the study group's long list of recommendations and figure out how to use them to make change.
"This report is not intended to sit on the shelf and gather dust," Forge said. "We are going to carry the ball as far as we can take it."
A printed report that more-fully details the findings is available by contacting Reese at 509-540-6720 or email@example.com. The report will eventually appear on the Community Council's Web site at www.wallawallavitalsigns.org.