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Sixth grade was a turning point.

Andrew Hubbeling, a giant of a man whose middle-linebacker appearance belied his kindly approach to school teaching, took us by the hand and prepared us for junior high, high school and beyond.

His method? He insisted on two things — that we work hard and be organized.

He showed us how to do both.

One of his favorite sayings was, “Let’s get to work,” and then he launched into the lesson of the day, handed out worksheets, or filled the blackboard with an assignment due that hour or later on.

For all of his ability, Mr. Hubbeling would find teaching today far more challenging. Then, some moms worked outside the home but dad was around after work to help with homework and, if needed, discipline.

Today’s teachers face classrooms where a third and some statistics suggest half of the students are living in single family homes. Mom is trying to raise the kids, put food on the table and maybe even hold down a second job. The gauge on her energy tank is leaning toward empty at night when kids need help with schoolwork.

The recent standardized test scores showing that only about half of South Dakota students are proficient in English and less than half in math and science is disappointing to teachers, parents and Gov. Kristi Noem, who promised to have “conversations about how to improve those numbers for our students.”

The world has changed markedly since Mrs. Cleaver fixed pot roast in her high heels, waiting for Ward to come home from his insurance office. Wally and the Beaver didn’t have the distractions provided by vaping, smart phones and the internet, but despite the many changes, some things have stayed the same. Which brings me to economics.

Undeniably, there continues to be a strong correlation between better test scores and household income. The more money a family makes, the better the children do in school. It’s not that the wealthier kids are smarter, but the relationship between economic stability and classroom achievement is unmistakable.

Conversely, kids who live in poverty or are low income have a harder time. The most obvious example is on the state’s American Indian reservations, where poverty reigns and only 23 percent of students were proficient in reading and writing. The percentages dropped to 14 and 13 in math and science.

State government cannot single-handedly address low incomes on the reservations or in other locations in South Dakota. Nor, unfortunately, can it change a culture that has devalued the traditional family unit which is so important to the upbringing of children. Even in South Dakota, which still stands in stark contrast to life on the West and East coasts, many children are living with one parent, primarily because of divorce, unwise and failed cohabitation, or an unplanned pregnancy. The outcome often is economic hardship and the children suffer because of it.

I won’t try to predict what the governor’s office and educational community will recommend, but pre-kindergarten surely will be discussed. This state has never endorsed the idea, largely because of cost, inconclusive long-term benefits, and because many of us steadfastly hold onto the idea that pre-school age children are the responsibility of their parents.

Yet new ideas are needed to help disadvantaged kids. Expanding our economy so that better-paying jobs are available to all who seek them was a stated objective of the governor during her campaign. Now, she has even more motivation to address the closely connected goals of broadening our economy in South Dakota and improving standardized test scores in the classroom.

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Noel Hamiel is a retired newspaperman and former state legislator. He also writes a column for weekly newspapers at noelhamiel.com. He can be reached at noelhamiel@gmail.com.

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