I was observing officials with the City of Baker School System the other night hashing out ideas on how they can make the learning experience better for its students.
There were suggestions such as increased use of technology, engaging students in more intellectually stimulating experiences outside of the classroom and merging more art into the curriculum.
As good as that was sounding, it was after 6:30 p.m., and I was running on fumes. Besides, I don’t have children there. I was taking pictures for them.
Then came a comment — well, actually a few comments — from Superintendent Herman Brister that really got my attention. What he said wasn’t exactly new, but re-emphasized to me how some schools, measured by the same metrics as others, have problems that make success a struggle.
Brister said to the group that teachers are facing issues such as students coming to school tired because the man living with them was arrested by police late the night before. The children had to somehow get to school the next day and focus on classwork.
Then there are cases of several children from a family that had been kicked out of their house the day before. They come to school the next day, or they come back after sitting out for a couple days because of the upheaval.
“Now those kids come to school and want to sleep, or don’t want to be bothered and we have to find a way to teach them,” Brister said. “They are good kids but they have so much going on with them. But, it is our job to find a way to reach them. We have to do that.”
“The big problem is that we don’t know how long the situations will last. Will it be three days? Three weeks or three months?” he said.
After the meeting, Baker Middle School Principal Roy Walker related an incident from that day. He was leaving for the 6 p.m. meeting only to find a student alone sitting outside.
“I asked where was his ride? He shrugged his shoulders,” Walker said. “Then I asked if he knew if his ride was coming. He shrugged his shoulders.”
The principal said he was headed to a fast-food restaurant before attending the meeting. What was he going to do about the boy?
“I asked if he was hungry and he said, ‘yes’.”
Now Walker had a real dilemma. Would he violate school policy and take the child off school property without permission of a family member? But how could he leave a hungry child there alone? So he took him to the nearby restaurant and bought him a meal.
He took the boy to his home and watched him go into his house knowing he had not followed every school system rule. But what was he supposed to do?
“You know I probably won’t ever have a problem out of that kid” because of what he did, the principal said. Interesting, I thought. I guess you have to hope for little victories.
There are growing examples, Brister said, where momma is “doing the best she can by working two and three jobs” to take care of her children. But then that creates “babies raising babies” at home.
When do these children do homework or just prepare for the next day without some adult guidance? These schools and children, many from low-income, one-parent households, have to meet the same state-mandated achievement numbers as those schools where the parking lots are loaded with luxury cars driven by students.
Walker mentioned something else. “In a school like mine, I have to know every student’s name. I can’t call out to a student and say ‘Hey you.’” He explained that some of these kids have so many problems at home that they come here seeking something positive. “If I say ‘hey you,’ this kid thinks that ‘I have to take so much at home and now I can’t even get you to respect me.’ … That kid can become a problem.”
Brister and Walker said they are not making blanket indictments of the students and parents in their schools. Not in the least bit. But they say the reality is that they have many students in tough situations, and the numbers are growing.
They said the problem can’t be solved by just kicking some students out of school. They say they owe it to the students to meet them where they are, even if the situation is getting tougher.
What Brister and Walker talk about is only a microcosm of problems at schools near large low-income areas. The faculty at those schools have to use guile, effort and creativity to reach their students and with fewer resources than their counterparts at schools where main concern is who will be the lead singer in the school musical.
There has to be a pool of resources, money and personnel from the state level available to work with these schools to help them to be successful.
Listening to the pained voices of the school administrators made me think about President Donald Trump and his predilection for the word “rigged.” In this case, the system is definitely rigged against these schools and their students.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.