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A divided country waits 

The debates are over, all but a handful of voters seem to have made up their mind, and President Obama and Mitt Romney are virtually tied. Regardless of who is elected, this troubling campaign could have a troubling ending, with the outcome not immediately known – and, perhaps, with one candidate winning the popular vote, the other the Electoral College.

That we are such a divided nation is nothing new. But it is troubling that we are marching so steadily rightward. It was unsettling to read the tributes to George McGovern following his death on Sunday and realize how far we are moving from his liberal vision. He stood up against the Vietnam War, pushed for a government that helps those who cannot help themselves, supported abortion rights, helped democratize the Democratic Party. He was "ahead of his time," his friend and former speechwriter Robert Shrum wrote on the Daily Beast this week. And although McGovern lost his presidential race by a landslide, as Shrum said, you can still see his influence.

In electing a president on November 6, we'll decide whether to try to build on that influence, or begin to wipe it out.

Meantime, herein Rochester ...

Some of the best news I've seen out of the Rochester school district recently came last week at an informal meeting Superintendent Bolgen Vargas had with district teachers, parents, and students.

Vargas's message, as City's Tim Macaluso wrote in his blog, is that the school district must "stop putting so much emphasis on intervention in the later grades," trying to help failing students catch up. The district and the community, Vargas said, need to focus more strongly on the youngest children, pre-kindergarten through third grade.

The district hasn't ignored its youngest children. But it often seems to emphasize rescue efforts. For instance: a recent district initiative has been to do a better job identifying and helping high school students who are falling too far behind to graduate. It doesn't take a PhD to know that by high school, the odds are heavily against those students. They're likely to have done poorly for years.

To expect teachers to help those students make up for lost learning is expecting too much. And, as Vargas noted, it's expensive.

As I urged not long ago, the district needs to end its practice of social promotion – passing children on to the next grade whether they're academically ready or not. I know the rationale for social promotion: that children can't be continually held back. The age difference becomes emotionally harmful for children who aren't promoted.

Of course. So if a child isn't reading at grade level, we should find out why, and get that child additional help. Right then.

And yes, children learn at different rates. But we've let good principles like that become excuses for abrogating our responsibility to our children. We know whether a child is just a little immature, a little slow in grasping letters and numbers. We know how to allow for the beautiful individuality of children in a classroom and still have high standards. We know how to find out, when a child is behind, whether the child is suffering emotionally, has a learning disability, is hearing impaired.... And we know how to get help for that child.

We also know how to help children whose parents are poorly educated; we know how to give them additional attention and education to compensate for what they're not getting at home, what they're already behind on when they enter school – if we get help to them early enough.

But we have to have the will to do it – as educators and as a community. I don't see any evidence that we have that will – and that we're willing to spend the money and provide the talent it will require. We cannot help these children on the cheap.

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