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Bennett calls for schools, agencies to work together to aid children

Schools must work more closely with one another and with medical and mental health agencies and social service organizations to improve the lives of children, according to Regents Chancellor Emeritus Robert Bennett of the Town of Tonawanda.

"Too many children are dropping out of school or are graduating without the skills they need to find jobs or to go to college," Bennett told the Niagara Falls School Board during an agenda review meeting Thursday evening.

"Kids dropping out of school are a serious national crisis. Schools, health, mental health and social service agencies must unite to meet the challenges of poverty," Bennett said.

"Schools can't do it alone," the former chancellor said, "but education and health are the most profound influences on families, and we need collaboration and joint accountability" to help students to succeed.

"Educators should take parental engagement more seriously and should make themselves more available to parents," he said. As an example, Bennett said, many teachers and school officials are available only during daytime working hours when many parents' schedules make it impossible to meet with them.

He suggested that educators become more flexible in meeting the needs and challenges that face many of today's students.

"For many of them," he said, "schools have become irrelevant."

"We may have to change the high-school graduation requirements to make our students more career-ready or more college-ready. Too many college students need to take remedial courses because high school didn't prepare them for college," Bennett said.

He suggested that some students may need five years of high school education, instead of the traditional four.

"Too many students don't understand the economics of graduation from high school or college," he added.

Bennett said most high school dropouts are incapable of supporting themselves financially, and even high school graduates are incapable of supporting families in today's economy.

"The state is about a year and a half away from having an interactive system that will connect schools with social services and case management professionals to address the needs of families," he said.

These challenges to local school systems come at a time when they are "facing very serious fiscal restraints," Bennett said.

"The largess of school financial aid from the state is coming down; no school district is going to have enough money to operate independently," the former chancellor added. "We will need a more regional approach to school management and sharing of services -- a multidistrict approach including possible school-district mergers or consolidation of services.

"Some small school districts won't be able to survive financially. Boards of Cooperative Educational Services will have to become way more important," he said.