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Soapbox: We need to listen to our students

Barry Albertson serves on the School Board for the Tigard-Tualatin School District.

For months before the presidential election, and for the past five weeks, the term “working class” has been used or thrown about hundreds of times. And, not just by anyone. Well-known columnists, people I listen to and really respect — writers, bloggers and journalists, like James Fallows (Atlantic Monthly), Bob Herbert (NY Times), Reihan Salam (National Review & National Affairs), Barbara Ehrenreigh (columnist), Bill McKibben (past New Yorker staff and now Rolling Stone reporter), Van Jones (human rights activist) and Heather McGee (director of the Washington Office of Democrats) have talked about the impact the “working class” had on the presidential election results. But, perhaps more importantly, they have discussed the impact the next four years might have on “our working class.”

So, who are these working class folks? How do you get to be included in this group. Political scientists define the working class as “less well-educated” workers, usually contrasting them with the upper and middle classes in terms of economic resources and education. Social scientists describe these folks as employed in lower tier jobs measured by skill, education and lower incomes — that section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage. But, I’m not too sure these academic definitions hold water today.

Turns out there are tens of millions of folks in the working class. And perhaps not surprisingly, the working class comprises a very big chunk of the United States’ middle class since more middle class folks, even with college educations, are left with job opportunities that were once the only option for working class folks.

So, why should a School Board member be thinking about the future working and/or middle class? Simple, because a very large percentage of the 800 or so kids who graduate from our two high schools each June will probably find themselves there — even if they go to a four-year college or get a two-year associates degree. Distilled down, this means board members, schools and school administrators need to be doing whatever we can to make sure these young students have options the minute they graduate from high school.

It means that if they’re not ready for college, for any number of reasons (one of which might be purely financial hardship), they can go out into our community and find a decent job, or even better, a highly skilled job that will enable them to earn a good living, have a place to live, buy a car, start a family and bank some cash each month for their childrens’ education and future — like my parents did.

Some kids, when they finish high school, or way before they finish, just aren’t ready nor want to go on with their formal education. That should be no surprise. What we grown-ups need, first, is to understand this basic tenant of adolescent, human nature, then be ready for these young adults and provide them with options, not just after they graduate from high school, but while they are there. We need to begin their training in areas and ways that make them productive, successful and fulfilled, in ways that make them want to get up in the wee hours of the morning and trundle off to school to do well and graduate.

Perhaps we need to listen to our kids, our young adults, while they’re in our high schools. Perhaps we shouldn’t push them into the paths and Class-5 waters we choose or think are best for them because these kids are all different, doing and learning at different rates and in different ways. Perhaps we should listen to them and provide options and opportunities that give them what they really want and really need for their short- and long-term futures. Finally, we can't ever give up on them.

Each kid is unique. They march to the beats of different drums, some at 78 and some at 33 1/3 rpm. Regardless, they’re ours, our responsibility, and we owe them a chance, every chance in the world, to be successful, content, to live a good life and to be happy — right here with the rest of us in our inspired, invaluable and enormously creative working class.

Get on your Soapbox

The Times offers a Soapbox to stand on every week online and on our Opinion page. The Soapbox is a guest column written by any reader on any local issue of public interest. They should be no longer than 800 words (about three double-spaced typewritten pages) and should include the signature, address and phone number of the writer.

Soapboxes are due Mondays at noon and can be emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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