By the time you read this column, most school districts in our county will have had their vote on schools budgets and will have elected and/or re-elected school board candidates.
State aid and the state of the national and local economy are having a tremendous effect on school district finances. Unfortunately, when school finances are on the "hot seat" and school districts are forced to restructure the budget and the way they educate their students, inevitably students suffer.
As taxpayers and parents, we need to clearly scrutinize our school districts' budgets. We need to clearly review cutbacks in programs and personnel. We need to ask the hard questions about administrative overhead, waste spending and subtle but counterproductive increases in class size.
In tough economic times school districts seem to paralyze and/or disable essentials that in this day and time are vital to our children's growth and development.
It borders on being reckless to reduce support services and at risk programs, when a growing number of students are manifesting serious mental health issues and at risk behaviors.
Teachers should not be social workers or psychotherapists. They should be educators with the resources to refer students that they identify as at risk and in need of support.
With a growing number of students on psychiatric medication, with the increase in violence in our schools, and with the increase threats of terrorism in the world, it would seem responsible programming to have the appropriate professional staff on campus to effectively meet these needs. Prevention is a more cost effective strategy than crisis management using the band-aid approach.
When schools are faced with austerity, many districts begin by cutting back support services: social workers, attendance teachers, nurse teachers, psychologists and guidance counselors. They increase class size, which increases stress within the classroom dynamic. Additionally, there are now less people to respond if a crisis erupts, which disrupts instruction.
The arts tend to be substantially reduced and/or eliminated. Many sports programs are put on a "pay as you play" plan, which oftentimes eliminates many deserving students who don't have the finances on their own to play sports.
Too many dynamic principals are being burnt out because they spend too much time in crisis management modes. They are not free to guide and empower their faculty and staff to educate. They are moving from one disaster to the next with few district resources to provide relief and support.
If children are our national treasure, as the national political leadership claims, then we need to radically reform the way we finance public education. Our system has to become more student centered and less business centered.
Reading, writing and arithmetic percentiles are important, but not at the expense of the total growth and development of our students. As I have often said in this space over the last eighteen years, if our students cannot critically think, problem solve and feel with their hearts, then what good are sophisticated math and science programs? How will they empower our children to manage in a world that is very narcissistic and self-serving?
Education and all the experience that is part of the educational adventure is a gift to our children. We need to treat the total experience as something vital and important to all of our children, the bright and the brilliant as well as those with special needs who often walk and live on the edge. "One size fits all" can no longer be applied to public education.
Too many of our schools are becoming wastelands of human potential. We are setting too many students up for failure. As they fall into the cracks, ill equipped to face life, they make bad choices that further paralyze their future. Ultimately, it will cost us at least twice as much to help them get back on track and become people who are capable of making positive contributions to society.
We need to hold our schools accountable for the content and quality of what they provide for our children. For better or for worse, in large measure what they do will determine what our children will become. However, our schools need to hold us equally accountable for molding, shaping and disciplining our children. The partnership of cooperation and collaboration that once existed needs to be revived and strengthened if there is to be any hope of instilling within the present generation the skills for survival, never mind happy productive living.
The climate and environment that our present generation of teenagers is trying to navigate at best, on a good day, is difficult. The peer pressures are escalating. The drug epidemic is not diminishing. The issue of violence and hate is increasing as well as the growing number of teenagers who suffer from intense depression.
Suicide ideation within a community is not something anyone wants to talk about. However, if you talked candidly with local high school students, no matter what their clique, they will share horrific stories of friends and acquaintances that made both feeble and serious attempts on their lives.
A student who isolates out, overmedicates him or herself with drugs and alcohol and/or shuts down is a student at risk. Most people who attempt to take their lives don't really want to die, but rather just want to stop the pain.
Recently a local high school senior was so distraught with his life and what seemed to be a hopeless future that he held the police at bay for three hours in the middle of the night. He had a shotgun that he claimed he was going to use to kill himself and others that hurt him. Finally, the police were able to peacefully disarm him and take him to Stony Brook University Hospital. After a few hours wait, he was examined and evaluated. It was determined that he was not homicidal or suicidal, so he was discharged with no plans until the next time life overwhelms him. However, at that time there might be casualties that won't be able to tell their story.
Does his high school have the personnel to manage him? What should they do? What can they do?