The high school where I work is beautiful. The football games are the go-to activity on Friday nights. Our students do well academically, earning South Carolina’s Silver and Gold Awards every year, and our Advanced Placement, Middle College and dual credit programs give students a head start on college. Our ROTC program has an unbroken streak of stellar inspections. Our drama, art, music and athletic programs give students many opportunities to shine. Our vocational program allows students to graduate with certificates in several trades.
Our students aren’t exceptional. 75 percent of them are poor and live with serious financial hardships.
The student body is racially and ethnically diverse with students of all ability levels, including children with profound disabilities.
Yet by any measure, we are a successful school, the pride of a supportive community.
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That community support is the reason we are successful.
Not market forces, not competition – because in this rural corner of York Country there isn’t much – but an abiding belief that education is a shared responsibility and the key to the health of the community as a whole.
That’s true across America.
I started teaching exactly 40 years ago. A December college graduate, I took a teaching job in January 1977 and have worked in high-poverty schools in South Carolina ever since.
Each January I take stock of my successes and failures in the classroom as I get ready to tackle a new semester. This January as I make my own New Year’s resolutions, I have a few modest suggestions for anyone interested in the welfare of school children in this country.
First, affirm the role public education has as the necessary underpinning of democracy. The idea of public education as an institution will be endangered by a presidency that advocates moving resources from public schools to private education under the aegis of school choice. Education is not just an individual right but a public trust. Abdicating that trust to corporations for whom profit is the major concern is perilous.
Second, challenge those who repeat the disproved myth that American education is failing. Point out the research that compares American students favorably to their demographically similar peers internationally.
Remind the naysayers that socio-economic level is the best predictor for student achievement. Because a quarter of American children live in poverty, aggregate test scores mask how well most children are doing in school.
Third, let your elected representatives hear from you when they are considering legislation that will help children in poverty – and by extension, offer the best way to make schools more effective and increase academic achievement.
Advocate for programs that are proven to help poor families, such as health care access at schools, like the dental van that visits my school several times a year or the fulltime mental health professionals who offer in-school counseling. Support programs targeting poverty such as fair housing policies, living wages, job programs and food assistance. Quality daycare, preschool and afterschool programs are worthy investments that pay off in greater academic achievement in the long term.
Finally, become involved personally.
Volunteer in a homeless shelter and tutor the school children living there. Donate to local social programs such as the YWCA’s Women in Transition and Families Together. Adopt a school and help stock their supply closet.
See yourself as a stakeholder in public education. Visit your local schools and witness for yourself their challenges and successes. Find a way to be a force for good in the lives of the children there.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.