Shared from the 9/3/2017 Panama City eEdition

Choices, consequences and challenges

School districts across the country are battling the effects of generational poverty, opioid abuse and parental incarceration and Bay County is no different.

We are blessed, however, in that each we can lean on the support of our dedicated educators, community partners, passionate volunteers and caring church members. This network has helped us overcome almost every challenge put in our path with the exception of one; the overwhelming impact charter schools have on our public schools.

I am not against charter schools. I am 100 percent committed to school choice. Parents have a right to choose where their children are educated. Within the confines of actual school capacity, I believe in the school choice process. I am equally passionate, however, about the vital role public education plays in our society and the critical impact it has had on my life and the lives of countless others.

The truth, as I will try to outline, is that choices made by parents in our community (choices they have every right to make) impact our schools and the remaining children in ways we call “unintended outcomes.” When the children of parents who were heavily invested in public schools leave, they take involved parents, volunteer hours, role models, field trip chaperones, room moms, book fair helpers, coaches and other “mission critical” supports with them. Our schools suffer greatly without that parental assistance and it’s difficult for the district to step in and try to fill in all of those gaps.

The unintended outcome of the drastic increase in charter school enrollment is that our public schools are changing. In 2006, we had eight Title One Schools in our district (Title One is a Federal designation for a school where 75 percent, or more, of the students qualify for free- or reduced- price meals). Today, we have 24 schools meeting that threshold. Currently, excluding charter schools, 64 percent of our students meet the criteria for free- or reduced-price meals. That compares to a 34.86 percent free- and reducedlunch rate for all of the charter schools combined.

That statistic is a game changer in the classroom but that doesn’t mean we think poverty is a barrier to learning. In fact, we think opposite is true. Education is the only way out of poverty and so we must work harder to ensure all of our students have choices and opportunities. Poverty means our teachers must overcome obstacles in the classroom like childhood hunger and sleep deprivation and behavioral issues.

There are other challenges. If you just compare the percentage of students identified as being ESE (excluding speech and gifted) in our elementary schools (14.4 percent) to the elementary charter schools combined (4 percent) you can see that our teachers are challenged to incorporate different learning styles, behaviors, academic needs and disabilities at a far higher rate than their charter school counterparts.

Whether from the impact of incarcerated parents, poverty, or familial drug abuse, the increased instability our children face means our teachers must do more than just teach the standards; they must help meet the basic needs of some students. They are being asked to do this WITHOUT the parental support in many cases they have been able to count on before.

It’s no secret that the most successful students are those whose parents prioritize education. When the most involved parents are removed from a school their absence is felt at every level, in every classroom and in every capacity.

When I grew up, one of three boys being raised by a loving, caring single mom in a subsidized housing neighborhood, I attended school with children from families who lived in very different situations and I saw how education could change my circumstances. I was positively impacted by sitting in class with kids who were unlike me, who lived in completely different neighborhoods and came from different socioeconomic backgrounds. My life was changed by seeing their “middle class” ways and the impact that both a mom and a dad had on their home lives. I knew, right then, that hard work at school would pay off and that motivated me.

Many of our children today are being deprived of those same examples and opportunities and there’s nothing teachers can do about it. We can’t measure, with numbers or statistics, the impact this is going to have on our students but I know from my own experience it is simply immeasurable and that breaks my heart.

We’re doing all we can to fill in the gaps. We’ve completely changed our approach to elementary discipline and have hired specially-trained paraprofessionals to help us get to the root of the problem with some of our most troubled young students.

Honestly, what looks like misbehavior at school is typically a reaction to the most deplorable living conditions you or I could even imagine. Many of these children live in homes that you and I have never seen, neighborhoods we wouldn’t recognize and environments we wouldn’t consider safe or nurturing for young children.

The sad fact is many of our students simply haven’t yet learned coping mechanisms because no one has modeled those for them. Too many of our students are simply focused on survival and we have to help them learn the critical social skills they are missing. Kicking them out of school for misbehaving will never be the answer but teaching them problemsolving skills, along with the academics they need, can change their lives and the lives of those around them.

But all of these additional responsibilities come at a great price tag both emotionally on the part of our teachers and financially when it comes to our budget. Adding more social workers, providing more resources at the schools and doing all we can to ramp up mental health support for our students presents funding challenges at a time when there’s little to no extra money coming from the state.

This problem isn’t going away any time soon and we need your help! Through our Elevate Bay initiative, we’re hoping to add 1,000 mentors to our team by the end of 2018 because these positive adult role models can help change the lives of many of our struggling students. We know our teachers will appreciate the additional support and we can’t wait to track the positive impact a minimum of 30 minutes, twice a month, can have on the lives of countless children. I wish that every elementary classroom in our district could benefit from having a mentor every day.

We also need more community involvement, more support and, ultimately, more awareness of the impact that choices and charters have on our community. Our expectations have to be realistic, fair and appropriate for eachschool. Poverty knows no skin color and honors no school zone map. Ultimately, these are all of our children and it’s time for us to come together like never before to show our support for our educators and those who are helping today’s children achieve tomorrow’s dreams.

When we do this, and it must be when and not if, Bay County wins.

For more information about Elevate Bay, contact Stacey Legg at leggsl@bay.k12.fl.us.

Too many of our students are simply focused on survival and we have to help them learn the critical social skills they are missing. Kicking them out of school for misbehaving will never be the answer, but teaching them problem-solving skills, along with the academics they need, can change their lives and the lives of those around them.

See this article in the e-Edition Here