Friday, August 3, 2007

Pay now or pay later

I subscribe to an educational news feed that sends me stories from all over the world. In today's feed, there was an article about a failed initiative in Scotland as well as notes on programs from California, New Jersey, and the bus full of kids who escaped from the Minneapolis bridge collapse, just to name a few. What struck me about today's brief is that three of the articles related directly to Massachusetts. One reported that the residents of Bridgewater voted to fund their schools and cut from the budgets of other programs another praised a program for aspiring engineers. I skimmed the first two but I paid close attention to the third: Hub weighs dorm for 'couch surfers.'

Nearly 50,000 children of school age in Massachusetts are homeless. About 10% of those kids are teens who leave home to escape abuse or as a result of their own emotional and addiction issues. Now, school leaders are considering adding a residential program to an alternative high school in Roxbury.

There aren't many people who wouldn't be moved by the stories of the kids profiled in the article, many of whom live in extreme poverty and spend their nights couch surfing:

"In some ways, a school doesn't have any business getting into housing. But what some of these kids may need most is a consistent home where there is order and people around who they can trust and who have their act together," said DeWitt Jones, chairman of the board of trustees for Boston Day and Evening.

Shaquillia Meadows, 16, who spent the last school year bouncing among friends' homes, sleeping on air mattresses, said she would benefit from a residential program at the school, where she is a sophomore.

"I felt like dropping out, but, honestly, I don't want to end up like my mother," said Meadows, who wants to study forensics in college. "If I had somewhere to go home to and eat and shower and rest my head, I would be like, 'Ok, now I could finish school.' "

As Dickensian as some may perceive boarding schools to be, I've spent time in residential schools and that are, for some kids, the first time they've been in a stable environment with a routine and predictable rules and boundaries. Sure, the lure of the street is powerful and these kids arrive with more baggage than they can carry but for these kids, the presence of one steady, charismatic adult can change them forever.

"...some educators and advocates for the homeless say the program could be risky for the school because it might distract administrators from their primary mission, education, as they take up the role of a social service agency." Of course the program will be risky. Of course it will. But I'm not sure a well-run residential program is any riskier than a teenager living on the street. Funding for education is always controversial. I happen to believe that the best programs aren't always the most heavily funded and that towns, such as Bridgewater, need to decide where their priorities lie when writing budgets.

But when you take into account all the risks that homeless teens face- pregnancy, addiction, incarceration, dropping out of school- and weigh them against the expense of a program that has the potential to provide a chance to right the ship. I vote for the ship.


margalit said...

It isn't just in Boston and Brockton and low income towns. It's in Newton. Last year my daughter's boyfriend was homeless. He was not allowed to live with his mother in Somerville by the court, he was turned over to his aunt and her wife, and they tossed him out. He slept on our floor for a while, but he was too much trouble (smoked, lied, didn't follow any rules, etc) and finally he was placed in a DSS program in Maine for a year. He's just coming back now, to live with the horrid aunts, but he'll be attending a DSS funded school.

Another girl we know, her parents have serious substance abuse issues. I wrote about it a lot last year. She was taken out of her house by DSS for a few months, but then was returned. I cannot tell you how many times she ended up at our house with no place to go because her parents were too wrecked to get her.

And that's just TWO cases. I know of plenty more. It's astounding how many kids are just thrown away by their families. As the single parent of a VERY difficult teen with mental illness, I know how hard it is. I know how worn out you can get, how stressful it is. My kid has been in placement. He's been hospitalized several times. It's VERY hard, but I'm not about to toss my kid out the door. Not until he's 18. Then it's a different discussion.

But it's horrid what happens to the kids that are tossed away. You probably don't know that DSS's budget was cut by 2/3 over the last 5 years by Mitt Romney, and that they cannot place kids like they need to. They don't have the money. The Dept of Mental Health does not take new cases because they can't. That man destroyed our social services singlehandedly. I hate his guts.

Rock the Cradle said...

Which news feed do you use? I'm interested in how other countries structure their educational systems.

The one we have isn't doing so well, is it?

Lack of funding is just one problem. If kids want to learn, and are given the opportunity, they will take it and use it. Meadows is the perfect example of a self motivated student. It would be a crime to not have a service available that will allow her the stable environment she needs to finish her high school education, and let her go on to the higher education she desires and deserves.

But if the children are not motivated and passionate about learning, no amount of money will help the situation.

Just to touch on one of the main reasons our schools are failing...they begin with the theory that all children can learn at the same rate, in the same environment, using the same methods. We all can see what a crock of BS that theory is.

We are not machines. Why should we be trying to educate are children as if they were? Without passion, and a desire to learn, there will be no real learning.

And without a base comfort level of safety, shelter, and food, how can we expect kids to be passionate for anything except survival?

margalit said...

rock the cradle: I don't think that it's fair to say that the schools believe that all children learn at the same rate. Or at least none of the schools MY kids have attended, nor any of the schools I taught in do. There is PLENTY of help for kids who have LDs, especially in MA which has not only NCLB, but 766, a SpEd law that entitles kids to get a LOT of extra help. Both of my kids are in special programs, called small learning communities, within our high school. My daughter has rather severe LDs and gets a lot of extra help and accomodations through her program. She is NOT in a learning center, nor has she been since elementary school. She's in a program that gives her individualized help with what is most difficult for her, which takes the place of a study hall. She has plenty of accomodations, and the school has bent over backwards to help her with her LDs.

My son has a mental illness and SEVERE ADHD. He is also in a small learning community that provides classes within the program, has a daily group therapy session, private therapy though the city's mental health center, and a lot of supervision. He takes most of his classes outside the program in the main school, but he does take a couple in the program because he can't handle the amount of writing required in mainstream classes.

My kids aren't alone. Over 50% of the kids in our high schools get some sort of extra accomodations. Really, over 50%. I know these kids. They get an amazing amount of extra help because the school wants them to learn. It isn't all about the MCAS (although admittedly some pressure is tacked on to pass the test). It's about giving the kids the chance to learn.

Our school has four learning tracks. AP, Honors, Curriculum 1 and Curriculum 2. AP, Honors and Curr 1 classes earn 5 gpa pts for each class, curr2 earns 4 pts. Many kids take all curr2 classes and go on to decent colleges. They ARE accomodated at all leveles, from the kids who are so learning disabled that they attend a life skills curriculum (my friend's autistic son is in that program) to AP classes. There is something for everyone, even within the famous New England idea that all children are gifted so there is no need to provide gifted education.

Our schools aren't all failing. It's unfair to categorize them as a failure. Many schools are extremely successful. I know our town turns out kids that are really prepared to go on in life. Not all go to college, one of our two high schools has technical ed classes, industrial ed classes, and even a culinary arts program. We try and train all different kinds of kids, so my son's good friend can learn to be the auto mechanic he's always wanted to be within our public high schools.

I've seen schools tarred and feathered as being impossible learning environments. But it's just untrue. If you had visited my daughter's freshman physics class this past year you would have seen first hand just how special her education has been. She took a mechanical engineering physics class that was 2/3 lab and 1/3 classroom. She made bottle rockets, a mechanical shopping cart, a battery operated car, and a bunch of other things in a curriculum designed by MIT for kids who need hands-on experiences. She LOVED this class.

My kids have the opportunity to take glassblowing, ceramics, jewelery making, music technology, computer animation, and a bunch of other wonderful and creative classes within the public schools. There is a wonderful balance of art, science, and humanities. It's a great program, and it's absolutely free.

Rock the Cradle said...

Margalit, you seem to have interpreted my statement as an attack on teachers and educators. Which couldn't be further from the truth.

I'm glad you've had such positive experiences with your children's educations, and it's good to see such wonderful work being done.
But likewise, it doesn't mean that nationwide, our school systems are succeeding. It means that some educators are doing extraordinary work that lets SOME kids succeed. Kudos to them.

This good work is not, however, being done for all children. There are schools with impossible learning environments. There are bad teachers. There are bad choices being made by people who are not engaged in teaching, that adversely affects children's educations. And THAT is not fair. And that is what needs work.

My father, a public school teacher for almost 40 years, (for a very good school system, by MA standards) was the first person I ever heard speak out against the school system. Then I heard complaints from his colleagues, then later, from friends and acquaintances who were and are teachers in public schools.

It would take too long to write here about the many ways in which our school systems are failing, and the many ways in which they could change, so I will post on my site in a few days about this subject and link here.

Over and out.