Our schools should be the centerpieces of community life. They are by design and/or by default the meeting places for many young people during their growing up years. Most teenagers love going to school; they may not love going to class, but they love meeting friends and hanging out. For a growing number of teenagers, the only nurturing adults in their lives are the people at school. It could be the math teacher, the assistant principal, the guidance counselor or the man who maintains the building.
Unfortunately, too many schools have become wastelands of human potential. All the new academic standards have intensified the pressure in many school communities. An overhaul of our academics was clearly in order. However, the new standards are not necessarily going to transform our marginal or borderline students into shining stars, especially if our academic landscape has not changed.
Intensified expectations and more demands on students and teachers are not necessarily going to translate into success. Borderline and deficient scores did not develop overnight. Our schools did not explode into academic mayhem. It has been a slow, destructive course that has emerged from years of benign neglect.
School achievement or lack thereof has been a political punching bag since the mid-eighties. We pay lip service to the principle that education should be a top priority. However, actions speak louder than words. If our schools were a top priority, every April at budget time schools would not panic around whether or not school budgets would pass.
Clearly school communities have not always managed finances well. Taxpayers' hard earned money has at times been spent recklessly and irresponsibly. Budgets should be scrutinized. Waste should be eliminated. However, never at the expense of our children.
Too often budgets are prepared with the sole concern of saving money and not educating children. Education, no matter how you look at it, is not a cheap enterprise. It is expensive, but can be cost effective with better planning and more astute accountability.
The new standards, if properly implemented, are going to be costly. For each district, the cost will differ depending on district need. Some communities, because of other social variables will have to be on austerity and/or seriously make cuts in overall spending.
Herein lies the concern: education cannot be reduced to a mere math equation. There are too many variables that must be factored into the education equation.
Personnel and academic programs are a districts greatest expense. Within the personnel lines there are groups of staff that are critical to the learning environment and tend to be the staff that school boards eliminate first when they have to cut costs.
The staff in question are the helping professionals - district social workers, psychologists, nurse teachers, attendance teachers and guidance staff. Too often people believe these key professionals are expendable. They are perceived as a nonessential luxury.
There have been radical changes in the school climate over the last fifteen years. A growing number of students are coming to school under intense emotional stress. They are not equipped to sit in class for six hours a day without any support and encouragement.
Students from every economic circumstance are being forced to deal with emotional and social dilemmas that many of us will never face in two lifetimes.
Peer pressure, drug use and choices around sex are daily issues for many of our high school and junior high school students. Many of these young men and women are seeing things at home that are horrific. Their coping skills at best are weak and inadequate. Thus, they come to school a mess!
What does the second period math teacher do when one of her students looks distraught or downright depressed? Or what if the student possibly manifests his or her depression not in shutting down or isolating out, but rather in acting out? Some colleagues will pretend that they see nothing. Others will acknowledge it, but will be clueless in what to do.
In some school communities there are very well developed programs of mental health and mental health support. Therefore allowing the teacher to still be the teacher, but also providing the assurance that if a student is in potential trouble, there are competent professionals ready to assist in a moments notice.
Unfortunately, very few school communities have a comprehensive mental health staff and support staff program in place to support and assist students and staff in need. More often than not, the caring teacher and/or administrator has to be a social worker and counselor as well.
After thirty years in the classroom, I find it almost unconscionable not to have a fully staffed mental health department in every school district. They should be a priority personnel item in every budget. Unfortunately, when a school district is under financial restraints, the first area many school boards cut or reduce is mental health.
It would seem to me that with the increase in violence and volatility among students, the first thing we should be doing is increasing our mental health staff and support personnel, not decreasing or eliminating them.
School social workers, psychologists, guidance and other support staff are key members of the educational team. These dedicated men and women provide support for a generation of students who desperately need encouragement and support in a world that is very narcissistic and self-serving.
It would be (in my view) educationally irresponsible to eliminate or reduce these vital personnel positions. Most of our teachers are not skilled to do what these professionals do.
In light of 9/11 and other unfortunate human circumstances, our students need more mental and emotional support than ever before. The stress that many teenagers must embrace in a given day would be overwhelming for most of us.
Scrutinize your district's budget. Don't be bullied or deceived into eliminating personnel or programs that protect and encourage your children's livelihood.