By the time you read this column, millions of students across the country will be back in school and tens of thousands of teachers will be back standing in front of students. Many students are starting school for the first time. Countless others are making transitions to new grades and school programs.
The excitement that marks the start of each school year is almost contagious. Most, on both sides of the desk, are excited about the new year. Unfortunately, by the middle of the first marking period much of the excitement and positive energy has dissipated.
What seems to erupt? What impairs the positive energy that marks the beginning of the new school year? There are many variables that factor into the school experience that will shape whether it will be a positive or negative experience.
If the school is on austerity due to budget problems, class size might tend to be overcrowded. Sports and other extra curricular activities might be cancelled. The diversity of opportunity might be severely limited.
The partnership between parent and school is critical to a positive school experience. If parents are in an adversarial role with school administration and faculty, then that creates a tense atmosphere. Faculty need the full cooperation of all parents. Parents need to be assured that teachers are fully committed to their children.
Parents need to establish a dynamic communication pattern with their children's teacher. Teachers need to have positive access to parents and parents need to have positive access to teachers.
As the new school year begins, parents and students need to be well versed in the student handbook, the student code of conduct and the student academic code. It is not enough just to possess these documents. We need to know, understand and support their content.
When our son or daughter is found to be non-compliant, we should not cover for them by writing an excuse for their non-compliance. To the contrary, we should expect that our children will be held accountable.
If JC is a senior and cuts first period because he stayed up late and overslept, his parent should not be writing an excuse note. Hopefully, his building administrator will be holding him accountable.
This past year our schools have been scrutinized on a number of levels. All school districts were put on notice to better scrutinize their spending plans after the "Roslyn scandal." Many disgusted school communities defeated their school budgets because of their concern over possible mismanagement of funds.
Unfortunately, the people who are most victimized are our children. They suffer if funds are mismanaged. They suffer if school districts go on austerity.
In recent years, we have raised the bar regarding basic academic standards. That is a good thing as long as it is not done in a vacuum. To raise academic expectations and not provide our students with the tools they need to succeed only sets them up for failure and further frustration.
We need to continue to reshape our academic landscape. Just raising percentages and standardizing the requirement for a regents diploma is only addressing part of the problem.
Students do not succeed or fail in a vacuum. They are connected to a variety of resources that can nurture or infect their development. We want to create more life-giving environments for students to thrive, not only academically, but also holistically as human beings.
All of our schools should provide safe, respectful, life-giving environments that empower all of our students to greatness. There are those who choose not to utilize this wonderful resource, not because of fear or a belief of inadequacy, but rather because they want a religious environment or a school with a very specialized focus.
Public schools should not be inferior to private or parochial schools educationally, athletically or socially. If they are, then as taxpayers we should ask why and work to correct whatever the imbalance might be.
In an effort to improve the academic and administrative life of our schools, we must be open to more than one model of learning. We must expect more from our teachers and not merely see them as computer chips of information. We need them to be mentors that inspire and empower our children to want to learn. To achieve that end, we need to pay teachers more and hold them accountable. A good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.
We need to look at our students differently. They should not be seen as mere reservoirs of information. Hopefully, along the way they are learning how to critically think, problem solve, access information and use and express themselves verbally and with the written word.
As teachers and adults, we need to think outside the box when it comes to learning. Our children are exceptionally capable of learning, but they are also capable of teaching.
By the time most of our children have reached first grade, they have learned much and learned how to do even more.
A growing criticism from parents is that our children are not interested in school and/or learning. Maybe we need to find new ways of engaging our children in the whole process. They need to use their gifts and talents for the sake of the local school they attend. Bright students need to tutor weak students. Students from all cliques and groups need to be networked to work on special projects. This can't wait until their senior year, it should start when they are in early elementary school. Children should be involved in decision-making and discipline when it is appropriate.
Some of these ideas might seem extreme or radical. The cynics among us are probably saying they will never work. They are already working around the country. There are charter schools implementing these ideas and private schools that are being created around these concepts - and they are working.
A number of our school districts are hurting on a variety of levels. Spending more money without a revised or renewed plan of action is an exercise in futility. Ultimately it will further cheat our children of the gifted education they deserve.