Behind Closed Doors

images-11I know of a little girl who just had her 6th birthday. When she got home from school on her birthday, the day that so many kids wait for in wild anticipation, her mom wasn’t standing there with presents and cake. Instead she was lying on the floor in a catatonic state because she was so high on drugs. This was all too familiar a scene in the little girls life. Sadly she had grown used to the fact that there would be no celebration for her special day, and she also knew there would probably not be any dinner.

This girl’s mom had been in and out of jail on drug charges. Her dad was absent from her life. She and her 2 older siblings all had different fathers. Her house was filled with smoke and strangers would come and go on a regular basis. There was no refrigerator and one of the sinks was broken but there was no money to replace or fix these things. She had her own room but no one ever put her to bed and she would often put her head down on her desk at school and sleep. There were also mental health issues that both her mom and older sister dealt with.

I know of this story because I have a friend who acts as a mentor to the little girl. She takes her to places like the botanical gardens, the ice skating rink, and the park. Sometimes they just stay at home and play together. Often times the only consistency and engagement in her life comes from these regularly planned weekly visits.

My friend got involved in this mentorship through a social services organization called Compeer, (http://www.compeerbuffalo.org). Their mission is to pair volunteer “friends” to build relationships with people in need and improve their lives and mental health through engagement. Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, (http://www.bbbs.org),is another service that aims to build a system of support around kids in need.

My friend has been involved with the little girl through Compeer for 2 years now. What was happening in her life previous to this is anyone’s guess. The sad thing is that this child isn’t alone. In our district there are thousands of stories similar to this and even worse.

I will never forget the day last year when the nurse from my youngest daughter’s school called and said a terrible tragedy had occurred and one of my 6 year old’s classmates was no longer with them. His mother, suffering from mental illness, had killed him in the middle of the night as he lay sleeping. For anyone who knew this vivacious little boy, the only boy who could play Magic Faries on the playground with the girls because he was the King, it was impossible to conceive.

We were lucky that the school did an amazing job of making grief and guidance counselors available to parents and students for many days after this tragic event. The school also went above and beyond to provide the little boy with a consistent and safe environment, one that was missing in his life outside of school.What failed him was Child Protection Services, the organization that is supposed to help and protect children within our community who are in danger of neglect and abuse. They dropped the ball numerous times when concerned relatives called them and instead offered the excuse that they were overworked and understaffed.

It is inexcusable but it happens and in our community that very year, my daughter’s  classmate was but one of a handful of children who had been ignored by CPS. This example points to why it is so necessary to have a strong foundation of stakeholders to support the children of our communities. It should not fall solely on the shoulders of our educators to recognize issues with student behaviors and act upon them. Rather, we as a community of advocates, mentors, and business leaders, have a responsibility to our kids to make sure that there is funding for the proper resources in any school district so that our kids don’t continue to fall through the cracks.

Fixing What’s Broken in our Schools

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The other day I watched an excellent documentary called “180 Days: Hartsville”. It was about a school district in a small South Carolina town that, despite high poverty rates and low employment has turned into a success with a 92% graduation rate.

Adversities

In the community of Hartsville you have to work 100 hours each week at a minimum wage paying job to meet the median income of $38,000. Parents are stuck in an endless cycle of struggle as they try to keep their heads above water, working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Family time is compromised and the result is a lack of structure in the home for many. In Hartsville, these societal adversities were directly impacting performance in the schools. They knew they were in need of major reform in order to rescue their students and community from a system that was failing them.

Focus Lost  

images-8What Hartsville points out they were doing wrong was multi faceted and could apply to many school districts. Simply put they had lost focus on the whole child and they had failed to recognize all of the factors that influence behaviors in schools.

Hartsville educators felt like they had been forced into an “unhealthy relationship with an overreaching federal government that rewarded states for adopting common core”. While they understood that we live in a data driven society and that a certain level of importance would always be placed on these metrics, they realized that their students needed to be worked with as human beings, not pieces of data.

The educators in Hartsville also realized that many of their students were burdened with issues from their home lives that directly affected their behavior in the classroom. Overworked parents with little to no involvement in their kids’ lives resulted in a lack of structure surrounding time out of school for many. Additionally, because of the hardships that many in the community faced, the level of parent engagement within the schools was virtually non-existent.

As educators they were tackling  these issues alone and they were getting nowhere. They realized that there were many contributors to their failures and there needed to be many contributors to their successes. They knew that they had to grow their foundation of stakeholders for successful reform. Business leaders, community members, parents, educators and students all had to be a part of the solution and the drive to success. The idea of school as a reflection of community needed to be a focus and a goal.

Embracing Changeimages-7

The Hartsville schools set out to establish a framework of positivity. They embraced the notion that “the ultimate measure of success was in the holistic well being of the child.” They began to celebrate student achievement and successes in the classroom. They validated students by emphasizing their ability to be positive contributors to their schools and their communities. They were consistent with the affirmation that all students, no matter what their background, were capable of success. One school Principal started her entire student body off on the Honor Roll at the beginning of the school year to show that they were all fully capable. They used their testing data not to show deficits but to find solutions, encourage and showcase successes.

They also looked at the role of leadership differently. There was still a hierarchy of teacher, principal and superintendent, but the emphasis shifted from being in power to that of empowering.  This approach enabled them to establish a foundation of healthy challenge, encouragement, and reward.

The Hartsville schools also changed their approach to parent engagement. They began to view parents as part of the solution not part of the problem. They sought out open communication and asked parents what was working, what wasn’t working, and what could be improved.  They also went directly into the neighborhoods of the families they served instead of asking the parents to come to them. They broke down the barrier of “us against them” and allowed the parents to feel like they had a voice and a stake in the success of their children and the schools as a whole.

In implementing and embracing these changes the Hartsville schools moved from a district that had been ranked below average in 2010 to a district of excellence in 2013.

What’s Happening in Buffalo

images-9Although Buffalo is a much larger urban district, there are many parallels with that of Hartsville’s district prior to reform.  The Buffalo Public School District has a graduation rate of 53%. More than half our kids live in poverty, unemployment rates are high, and many kids deal with absentee parenting because family members work long hours at multiple jobs.

Like the Hartsville of 2010, our district is also failing because we have lost focus on the students.  Very rarely will you read an article that casts our schools or students in a positive light. As a district and a community we could be doing a lot better at celebrating  successes. We could also do a better job of treating our students as individuals with issues that can directly influence their behavior and their performance in school. Just last week there was an article in The Buffalo News about a student who had behavioral issues and struggled in class. He is now 15 and repeating 6th grade for the 3rd time. Our district’s response to this student was  to write him off. It wasn’t until the student’s mother reached out to a parent organization and the article appeared in the paper, that the student was removed  and placed into a different school with the appropriate resources to help him succeed.

We also have a school board that is in dire need of reform. They are so insistent on name calling and divisiveness that they simply don’t have the time to focus on real issues like the reality of why our schools are failing. Our Board needs to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem, and they should be working collectively to set a standard of excellence for our students and our community.

Any community that is dealing with a failing district  really needs to take a step back and  look to examples like Hartsville. We have to change our focus and start to embrace the model of whole child, whole school, whole community. We are fortunate to have a small but growing group within our school district and community that is committed to this idea of reform, but we need more stake holders and more buy in to realize the full potential that this paradigm shift has to offer.

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365401829/