The Poverty of Caring

At the end of every school year, we tend to obsess over standardized test scores, the percentage of students that pass state issued Regents exams and how the state grades our overall educational performance as ...

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At the end of every school year, we tend to obsess over standardized test scores, the percentage of students that pass state issued Regents exams and how the state grades our overall educational performance as a school district. Every school community wants to receive high marks from the Board of Regents.

The "No Child Left Behind" federal legislation implemented during the Bush administration has been a feeble attempt at bridging the educational inequalities between the haves and the have-nots.

Unfortunately, because schools are administered and staffed by humans, we too often judge our students by where they live and the language they speak. Using this criteria, even unconsciously, determines what communities will have programs for the gifted and talented, the honors students and on-campus remedial programs.

We limit what students have access to, too often, because of where they live. As educators, we must decry those prejudicial influences. As parents, we must demand more for all of our children, no matter where they live or what language they speak.

Children are not "mindless mutants" waiting to be controlled and programmed by adults. They have opinions and needs that must be heard.

The primary purpose of education is not job preparation. Rather, education should be so much more! John Dewey stated, " a process of living and not preparation for future living."

Our schools should be the centerpieces of every community. They should be that one safe place where every student in the community can feel supported and empowered to become all that he or she desires. It shouldn't matter what your economics are, where you live or who your parents are. Public education should be equally available to every student. All students should have equal access to technology and other educational opportunities that will further strengthen their intellect and help them to grow as productive human beings.

Unfortunately, there are grave inequalities in opportunity and in social conditions that impair many students' possibilities. In John Kozol's words, "these savage inequalities have nothing to do with a so-called mindset or culture of poverty, nor with any other supposedly intrinsic or inherent value held by the people they most impact. They're wholly disconnected from any measure of intelligence, eagerness to learn, or effort. Yet, they deeply influence learning and inhibit our most underserved students' access to equitable educational opportunity."

Whether we like it or not, we are perpetuating a class system that in some ways is worse than the days of segregation. If "no child is to be left behind," then equal resources should be available to the rich and the poor alike. We need to be conscious that certain things that we, in the middle class communities take for granted, are starkly absent among the poor and the working poor.

For example, most middle and upper middle class families have access to adequate medical and dental care. The poor and the working poor too often do not have that same access and so preventable diseases plague the poor. Those students tend to miss class more often than their peers from middle and upper class communities.

Poor school districts do not provide their students with the same access to new textbooks, computer technology and a stable faculty, who are appropriately degreed and licensed to teach. Also, most middle and upper middle class families have computers in their homes. If the truth be told, most students from middle and upper middle class families have their own personal computers and probably laptop computers as well. For many poor students, the only access to computer technology is what is available in school and in the local public library - and too often, those venues are poor to grossly inadequate.

Poverty has many different faces. The poverty most of us are familiar with is the poverty of economic deprivation. That kind of poverty does paralyze people's opportunities. As much as a poor student may want to learn, sometimes just basic survival becomes his or her primary occupation. If we've never worried about the basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter, toothpaste, bath soap and other hygienic material, it's hard to appreciate the plight of the poor student on a daily basis.

However, there is another kind of poverty that is much more debilitating than the poverty of economics - it is the poverty of care and concern. More than we realize, we have a growing number of students in all of our schools, no matter what the geography, who are suffering terribly from an emotional poverty that is as debilitating as economic poverty.

Economic poverty is visible and measurable. Emotional poverty is invisible and oftentimes infectious. On some levels, it is more debilitating than material poverty will ever be.

Every day, students across America go to school hungry. Most school districts have subsidized breakfast and lunch programs for students in need. Every day across America, students go to school emotionally distraught, and few know about it! Because of fear and shame, too many students hide their emotional pain. They bury their feelings inside and slowly withdraw. As long as they don't act out and fly under the radar, no one will ever know how they are suffering.

This emotional poverty does now know a particular geography or socio-economic status. Unfortunately, it is commonplace everywhere. In our own community, where we have been blessed with abundance and exceptional opportunity, students come to our schools having witnessed all forms of abuse in their homes. They have been ordered to keep silent, if ever asked and have been threatened with unspeakable consequences for telling their secret to anyone.

A growing number of our students are being caught in the unfortunate trauma of divorce. Too many children feel like they are ping-pong balls between their parents. Many junior and senior high school students who are caught in this dilemma feel like they have no voice, and that their opinion means nothing.

Some emotional poverty is being caused by parents who don't realize that they have established unreachable goals for their children. The open communication that should be present, isn't. A growing number of these children are electing to cope with this stress and emotional pain inappropriately. They are experimenting with over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, alcohol and street drugs. Too many parents are blind to the seriousness of this issue.

This emotional poverty does not merely infect our marginal students. It is infecting students in every social circle in all of our schools. Our athletes, our honor students and our average students are all being infected.

The hard question to be raised is, "what are we doing to respond to this growing debilitating concern, especially as summer is upon us?" If we care about our children, and I believe we do, we cannot turn our heads and pretend that this issue does not exist. We cannot delude ourselves and believe that our children are not at risk of being infected by this issue. Peer pressure, bullying and unrealistic expectations are everywhere! How do your children respond? Do you really know?