Reassessing Our Educational Landscape

It is hard to believe that in a few weeks students across Long Island will be back in class. A number of school districts will be on austerity forcing some school communities to eliminate vital ...

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It is hard to believe that in a few weeks students across Long Island will be back in class. A number of school districts will be on austerity forcing some school communities to eliminate vital staff, programs and extracurricular activities.

Those programs that are hardest hit when a district goes on austerity are athletics and vital support staff. The personnel that are eliminated are nurse teachers, social workers, attendance teachers and other support staff who work with students at risk.

The recent fiscal crisis across Long Island has forced communities to accept austerity, rise up and work together through a variety of efforts to restore district wide athletics. In those communities, parents, students and community members have been successful in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore athletic programs to their district.

It is refreshing to see a community stand together and work hard at something that is important to all of them. Athletics definitely have a positive influence in every school community. It is genuinely a worthwhile and valuable cause to work for. It reaches some students in very powerful ways that a classroom is unable to.

Unfortunately, the other significant budget cuts tend to die in the shadows. Our school district support staff are oftentimes the backbone of student life. These positions tend to be invisible and expendable for most, unless you have a son or daughter at risk or in need of special services.

Twenty five years ago our educational landscape was radically different. Students went to school, went to class, played a sport, were active in extracurricular activities and went home with little conflict or hassle.

Today, students love going to school but don't necessarily love going to class. School has become a safe haven for a growing number of our students who are battling a wide range of issues. Academic deficiency is not their only battle. More and more students are battling a wide range of addiction issues, social adjustment issues and mental health issues.

If we were to look at the national statistics regarding attempted teenage suicide and suicide, the numbers are startling.

The profile of the student battling a mental health or addiction issue is no longer that of a student on the fringe or a young person from a broken or dysfunctional family. Every family runs the risk of a son or daughter struggling with one of these important life issues.

The two questions to raise are: do we have the eyes to see and recognize our kids at risk and do we have the resources to respond to these serious concerns?

On a good day, these two questions are difficult to answer. When a school district is on austerity, it's even worse. Most middle class communities tend to minimize students at risk. Very few communities want to acknowledge that they have a drug problem among their young that needs to be aggressively addressed. In recent times, a more troubling concern is that we have an epidemic of teenage deaths due to reckless decision making around the use of drugs and alcohol.

The denial among our educational leadership in many of our school communities is most disheartening. It is very disturbing that too many school administrators are not willing to stand up to school boards who live in denial about the serious social concerns that exist within their community. That denial is overtly expressed in a number of ways. How many school districts have a clear policy on drug and alcohol use among students? Are the policies punitive or preventive? Are they enforceable? Are school districts interested in rehabilitating students or just getting rid of them?

Twenty five years ago, before the drug and alcohol epidemic became so visible on high school and college campuses, athletics was one venue where coaches attempted to wield an iron fist when it came to the illegal use of drugs and alcohol. They made it clear that any illegal drug or alcohol use was grounds for immediate dismissal from the team. More importantly, they enforced what they said. Their athletes knew they meant business - at least during the season.

The 1990's gave birth to the contract for life that athletes and students signed promising to abstain from illegal drug and alcohol use. In the early days of the contract, it was a very positive tool. Students who signed had their names published in community newspapers and school district newsletters. Their signatures were also posted in their respective high schools. Parents pledged to support their children in this effort. For a brief time, it was effective. Then, it became a mockery and a concrete expression of hypocrisy.

Some parents became weak when it came to holding their children accountable to the content of the contract. Some coaches, when they became aware of a lack of compliance on the part of their athletes, did not want to be the bad guy and dismiss the athlete who was in non-compliance because it would probably affect the athlete's opportunity for scholarships.

Today, very few schools use the contract for life as a tool. When asked why not, many say that it's too hard to enforce. That attitude is infecting school communities across the country. Life is hard to enforce, but as educators, we need to stay the course and not give up. We need to support initiatives that will empower our students to effectively deal with the hard life issues and the variables that cause them to make poor choices.

We need to reassess what is important! When faced with austerity, are we going to give up and create schools that are wastelands of human potential?