Schools as Social Service Agencies

An editorial from the Wichita Eagle:

Homeless kids need community help (August 16)
The boy was hoarding food at a Wichita school lunchroom instead of eating it. When told by an adult that he needed to eat his food, the boy began to cry.

Hundreds of Wichita schoolkids are starting their school year facing a huge obstacle to learning: They’re homeless. Anxious. And scared.

With no fixed address and with parents absent or overwhelmed by problems, these kids face big challenges just getting to school, much less learning anything.

This school year, let’s make an extra effort to recognize them, support them and help them succeed.

Schools might be the least visible part of Wichita’s homeless problem: Last year, some 1,000 students, according to district officials, didn’t have a stable home address at some point during the school year. They might be sleeping in homeless shelters or motel rooms or on relatives’ couches.

Sue Steele, homeless coordinator for the Wichita school system, told The Eagle editorial board Wednesday that parents and kids “doubling up” with other families is a pervasive feature of Wichita school homelessness.

Living at a relative’s or friend’s place might beat living on the street, but the uncertainty and instability still profoundly affect students’ well-being and performance.

Doubling up puts enormous strain on the host family, too, and “can put them both in crisis,” said Steele. It’s a problem with rippling effects across the community.

The struggling parents include single mothers who work but make minimum wage and have high rent or health issues and “just can’t get by.”

Earlier this year, Wichitans responded generously to a call for donations and supplies for homeless schoolkids, raising some $19,000. Kudos to Paul Daemen and his fellow salespeople at Plaza Real Estate for taking the lead in this effort.

The goal, said Steele, is for homeless kids to “fit in” at school and not lack the backpacks, field trip money, uniforms, band instruments, gym bags and other essentials that most families take for granted.

While school needs come first, Steele can refer families to social services such as rent and utility assistance. She also helps line up buses and taxicabs for students lacking transportation. One student, she said, had seven different addresses during the past school year, requiring seven different transportation plan changes.

Getting the students to school is a small victory in itself, because school is the one stable influence in their lives.

“Education, for a lot of these kids, is the only way out,” Steele said. No matter how much money or resources we put into homeless problems, she noted, these kids “will be left behind if they’re not in school. And we’re going to pay for it as a society.”

This brings to mind an article from the Wall Street Journal, “Schools Might Get Better if They Did Less:”

Educational reform will have more of an impact on how well students learn if the U.S. stops depending on schools to address a vast and growing array of social problems, says writer Peter Schrag in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine (no link available). For the past 50 years, the U.S. educational system has been held responsible for everything from failures in the space race in the 1950s to persistent racial inequality to an inability to compete with Indian and Chinese knowledge workers today. At the same time, legislators depend on schools to deal with social ills that in other countries are handled by social-security systems. U.S. teachers are expected to serve “medical, social and family problems before they can even begin to think about teaching reading, math and history,” says Mr. Schrag, who has written several books about education.

Schools can’t realistically meet such extravagant goals, says Mr. Schrag, but the expectation that they should has led to a permanent sense of educational crisis in the U.S. This state of crisis has led to successive waves of reforms – shrinking school sizes, expanding advanced classes, No Child Left Behind — that have had a limited impact on students. But the constant shifts leave many teachers cynical about reforms and wary of applying change the classroom.

Schools in the U.S. today aren’t good enough, says Mr. Schrag. But student performance likely won’t improve as long as schools are subject to a perpetual cycle of reform aimed in large part at sustaining American competitiveness in the global economy. As an alternative, says Mr. Schrag, it might make sense to see schools in simpler, clearer terms, as places where “children might simply learn something – not just for our benefit, not just for the nation’s, but for their own.” — Robin Moroney

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