Education has long been the key to advancement in American society, and its value will become more important in coming decades.

The demand for an educated workforce is growing given the requirements of the 21st century economy and the impending retirement of the high-skill baby boomers. Studies show that we will not be able to import enough qualified workers from other parts of the country or the globe: We need to prepare the young people growing up in our region for the jobs of the future. There is no more critical point at which to intervene right now than at the middle school level.

Long neglected in education reform debates, the middle grades (sixth-eighth) are starting to receive the attention they deserve. In United Way of Greater Los Angeles' recently released report, "Seizing the Middle Ground: Why Middle School Creates the Pathway to College and the Workforce," we highlight both the academic and social-developmental challenges facing the approximately 400,000 middle-graders in Los Angeles County and what needs to be done to make sure students go on to graduate from high school prepared for college and the workforce. Among the report's findings are these sobering facts:

- For every 100 ninth-grade students enrolled in Los Angeles County schools in 2001-02, only 57 graduated four years later and only 12 went on to a California public university.

- Less than 50 percent of students who failed at least one class in grades six-eight graduated from high school within four years compared with more than 66 percent of students who never failed a class.

- More than 70 percent of middle schools serving low-income populations are failing federal education standards.

- Nearly half of students do not feel safe at school, and 13 percent have carried a weapon onto school property at least once.

- Half of the middle schools in L.A. County are overcrowded, with an average size of 2,100 students; these schools provide one counselor for every 609 students, two and a half times the recommended ratio.

The report clearly shows that middle-grade students overall are not doing well in Los Angeles County. Educators, parents and, ultimately, all of us bear a collective responsibility for these failures. Many middle schools are overcrowded, lack enough counselors and do not provide safe, nurturing learning environments. All middle schools in the county spend well below the national averages per pupil, and just half of teachers in the critical subject of math have a specific credential in math.

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