Perspective on school problems

Published 5:35 pm Saturday, February 17, 2018

The problems in America’s public schools today seem daunting.

Even when there are not shootings, violent fights and kids bringing guns to school, there are constant issues. Disciplinary problems and low academic achievement often go hand in hand, and the goal of appropriately accommodating every single child with the best possible education using finite resources is a lofty one. And whether your kids are grown, or you’re a community member with no children, or you’re a government bureaucrat, it’s all too easy to criticize the good work the teachers, other staff and administrators are doing day in and day out based on nothing more than standardized test scores.

A couple of observations from my time covering Suffolk Public Schools stand out.

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One time, I was doing a feature story on a summer school program, and I sat down at a table of children at an elementary school who were working on an activity. After I asked a couple of perfunctory questions, one of the girls turned to me and said, “My mom says I’m stupid. She says I’m useless. She doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about my grades. That’s why I’m here.”

I was just as mortified as I was surprised at the sudden revelation to an adult stranger who was holding a notebook and pen. I struggled on what to say for several seconds. The girl went back to her activity.

I knew I had to say something, so I looked back at my notebook to remind myself of the girl’s name. I called her by her name and said, “Listen to me. You’re not stupid. You’re not useless. A lot of people care about you.”

The girl shrugged and wordlessly went back to her activity. I attempted some more encouraging words, but it seemed like she was ignoring me. I gathered my things, took my leave of her teachers and the other adults in the room as politely as I could and managed to get out of the building before the tears began to flow.

Another time, I was covering the Deputies Outreach to Students and Staff program of the Sheriff’s Office at a different elementary school. The deputy stopped to talk to a student having a rough time controlling himself. I casually asked why there was tape on the floor a few feet from the door.

The response came from the teacher: “He kicks the doors and leaves dents in them, so now he’s not allowed to go past that tape.”

And here I was thinking it might have been a prop for a game or something.

The deputy later told me the child’s father is in jail, and he has been having a hard time adjusting.

These two incidents that I happened to witness in my time covering Suffolk Public Schools are a drop in the bucket of those experienced every day in schools nationwide. Hundreds of thousands of school faculty and staff are working to overcome the ills of society that these kids bring to school with them. And they get criticized when test scores aren’t up to par.

There are no pat, easy answers to how to prevent school shootings and other violent incidents that have happened across the nation. There aren’t even any easy answers to how to improve academic achievement.

Perhaps we all could use just a bit of perspective.