How do you teach those who do not want to learn?

Universal education as a goal is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Our empathy for the non-engaged student is waning. Funding is tight these days and the pressure to perform has never been greater for schools and teachers alike. A seat at the table is no longer guaranteed for the occasional, somewhat indifferent student.

This month Waco ISD reaffirmed its policy that students who miss more than 18 days at its Brazos High School Credit Recovery Center will be cut loose from the program. They do so because limited seats are available at the center, and school officials want to give those seats to students who care enough to show up. The policy increases Waco ISD’s dropout rate substantially, yet it simply has to be done.

It’s a good policy and I wholeheartedly agree with it.

Teachers and schools have been battling apathy for years. A small percentage of students in every grade simply do not engage in their own education. When they do show up, they refuse to take part in the learning process and oftentimes are disruptive to the point of distracting other students. It’s worse in some schools than in others, but it’s a persistent problem on almost every public campus in the country.

We’re not talking about kids who don’t succeed but rather kids who don’t try. That’s an important distinction and one easily made by a qualified classroom teacher.

The kids who try deserve every opportunity we can give them.

At some point every student becomes at least partially responsible for his or her own education. Kids mature quicker than they did 30 years ago thanks to technology, but long before any student becomes a senior in high school, he or she knows what is at stake when it comes to education. They know, yet some simply do not care.

So rather than beg them to come to class, put their parents in jail or spend millions trying to track them down each and every day, perhaps it’s time to meet apathy with apathy. Waco ISD didn’t reach its decision lightly when it began moving in this direction a few years ago, but 18 absences from a school whose existence is, by definition, a last chance is inexcusable.

At some point, trimming dead branches is the only way to keep the tree alive.

Ultimately, effort is up to the student, and the student alone. Yes, there are a multitude of facts that influence that effort. Some kids have more hurdles to overcome than others, that’s for sure. But a good education is available to anyone who wants it in this country.

Society has a track record of intolerance when it comes to slackers. What has changed is the number of opportunities that exist in the work-a-day world for those who choose to be uneducated. Our economy is driven by technology, which has relentlessly eliminated jobs once held by less-educated individuals. It’s difficult enough to find work without a college degree and next to impossible without a high school diploma.

I’m not a teacher and claim no educational expertise. But I know those on the front lines of education are being asked to do much more than teach kids these days, and for far less money than they’re worth. So when the time comes to part ways with apathetic kids, it’s pretty safe to say all efforts and resources available have been employed to prevent it. Nobody hates to see a kid drop out of school more than a teacher.

Schools are trying. Teachers are trying. Most parents are trying. Showing up and paying attention is half the battle. But if students aren’t willing to do that, there’s not much anyone can do for them.

Society has moved on. And it’s beginning to drag the beleaguered education system with it.

Steve Boggs is editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Email sboggs@wacotrib.com.