Politicians like to say that education is a priority and that children are valued in this country. As steep budget cuts spawn teacher layoffs nationwide, such claims ring increasingly hollow. In our district, more than 53 percent of the children live in poverty, as measured by the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Currently, we’re seeking more faith and business partners to help fill backpacks with food so fewer kids go hungry whens schools are closed. For many, their only nutritious meals are served at school. These are the same children who don’t have access to doctors, dentists, medicine, warm clothing and stable housing, at least not on a regular basis. There’s no doubt these students can learn and achieve at high levels. There’s also no doubt that they’re going to need more support along the way than their more affluent peers whose childhoods aren’t marked by the daily struggle to survive. These supports take resources, like longer school days, longer school years, smaller class sizes, more technology and classroom tools, and more adults who believe in them. Yet here we are, contemplating how to do more with less.
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Finding joy in simple things is an unappreciated gift, one my daughter, Erin, possesses.A warm smile, lunch out, a pleasant bus ride, a few friends and family members to call — it doesn’t take much to make a great day for Erin. Today she happily reported that she had an email address at “work” and was learning to use it. Erin teaches me daily that embracing life is a choice, one we must make anew again and again. Her capacity for love is so uninhibited and exuberant, yet the world would judge her as mentally deficient. Even the more politically correct developmentally disabled misses the point — do we look at what’s missing or do we focus on what’s there?
It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry. And kids can’t get five servings of fresh fruits or vegetables a day if no one sells them in their neighborhood. Our bodies need good food, fresh air and plenty of exercise to power them. Our brains need less TV time and more books, board games and hands-on activities. Our hearts and our spirits need more conversations and connections with caring, competent adults. School days and years need to be longer, not shorter, so kids have more time to learn the vast amount of knowledge and skills required today. Class sizes need to smaller, not larger, so teachers can individualize instruction for more students. Children who struggle to learn need the best teachers. Schools with the most challenges need the nation’s top principals. Yet many of the students we serve in our public schools, particularly those most impacted by poverty, aren’t getting enough of any of these. Then we wonder why they’re not all on grade level? Children are incredibly resilient. They can overcome any obstacle. But they need more help from the adults in their lives, in their schools and in their communities.
Having just returned from a mini-family reunion in Florida during the T-Day holiday, I’m filled with thanksgiving for our robust and extensive clan. With just one side of our family represented, and not all members able to attend, we gathered 31 folks of all ages, from less than 12 months to 80 years old! What a treat to see four different generations together. Who needs video games, computers, Ipods and other technology when you have dozens of cousins, a beach, water and plenty of snacks. It is good to feel rooted, connected and a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Why is everyone so angry? For those of us in public education, outbursts like Senator Wilson’s shout “You Lie” at the President are nothing new. We hear angry accusations everyday, along with the underlying assumption of ill intent, the sneer of disrespect. It was disheartening to see our President treated this way, and not particularly comforting to learn from an NPR historian that decorum at this hallowed event has been steadily eroding since the Clinton administration. I spend a fair amount of time each week helping folks understand that we really don’t spend all our time in central office plotting how to make folks miserable, or that teachers and principals aren’t purposefully trying to keep children from learning to read, write or “do” math. The assumption of incompetence can be a bit galling at times, but I find that easier to deal with than the doubts about integrity, the assumption of some stain of guilt or lack, of truthfulness, of good intent, or shared values or goals. An early mentor of mine once said “that credibility is like virginity, you only lose it one time.” Of course, this advice was given when facts still seemed essential to matters of truth or opinion. It’s hard to have a civil debate when facts are viewed as inconsequential, when positions matter more than sound public policy, when style masquerades as substance, and when talk radio is considered credible.