Friday, July 6, 2012

Peter DeWitt: Educating the Whole Child

Adults who haven't been in a public school in a long time will only know how it is by what they remember. If they had a great experience, they will have a positive opinion. If they were fortunate enough to be at a supportive and inclusive school, then they will remember being in an environment where they could explore find their own identity.

However, if an adult had a negative experience, their opinion will obviously not be as positive. If they were bullied by another peer or perhaps an adult, then they remember school as an unsafe place where they lacked engagement. Unfortunately, these kind of school environments exist in our public school system and in an effort to change them, schools are being hit with countless mandates and accountability. It's a broad brush approach to a problem that was not happening around the country.

For many students their formative years were a time when they experienced a great deal of growth, made friends, had issues with other peers and learned the foundation they needed before entering the workforce or moving on to college. Many people look back at their high school experience as a positive time in their lives. Other adults do not.

Much of that public school education as you remember it is changing. In many schools the arts are being cut. Music, art and drama programs are something that schools can no longer afford. Some schools are going into the "untouchable" sports programs because they cannot afford to keep all the sports that they once found easy to support.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone because budgets are being cut in most fields like education and health related services. Many Americans have lost their jobs and many college graduates cannot find one. Education is just one of those fields that is experiencing devastating cuts. It is a time when schools and communities have to decide what they really value in education.

Beside the budget cuts there are a few different areas where schools are changing. Most states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards, which will ensure that schools are teaching the same curriculum. This can have both positive and negative effects on a child's education. For the first time, schools may actually have standards and an aligned curriculum, which is very positive. However, the same schools that lack resources now will only be able to offer the education they can afford and the wealthier and more innovative schools will be able to provide a curriculum that delves deeper. It's hard to teach 21st century skills when you lack the tools and resources you need to teach them.

LGBT Issue?

Formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ASCD has had the Whole Child initiative for many years. The point of the initiative is to focus on the whole child, which means the social and emotional growth a child needs as well as the academic growth they must have in their school experience. This is not just an LGBT issue. This issue affects all students, gay or straight. However, the ramifications will be damaging to LGBT students.

No Child Left Behind created a "one size fits all" mentality and our current system of high stakes testing and accountability are only making that worse. We are at risk of losing creativity in schools. New mandates and accountability measures are taking the focus off of students and putting it on teachers. In an effort to make sure that they are evaluated fairly, many teachers are at risk of playing it safe and not stepping outside the box. Even the best teachers have a hard time moving forward when they feel they have been used as scapegoats by politicians for larger problems like poverty and unemployment.

By July 1st in New York State, all schools must have board policies and school codes of conduct that protect LGBT students due to the Dignity for All Students Act (Dignity for All). This important legislation spearheaded by New York State Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell requires school administrators to not only have these policies and procedures in place; it also requires them to prove that they are protecting students.

However, in states where there is not legislation, safeguarding these students will once again fall on the backburner and become an issue they "don't have time for," because they have to spend their time doing paperwork and making sure they're meeting mandates. Keeping all students safe should be their number one job but we know there are administrators who will not find the time to keep every student safe or they will look for a quick fix which will not be beneficial to anyone.

In the End

Students are entering schools with many needs. If you are not an educator, you do not see the types of needs that students have and if you grew up in a supportive family, you may not even understand how much this exists in our nation's schools. The collapse of the economy has put a strain on all of us, but it has greatly affected our students. They are at risk, for many reasons, of not receiving the type of education that those students who came before them received.

Staff is being cut and students are being bullied. School counselors, psychologists and teachers are being cut. What staff will be around to help safeguard students? Given the new mandates and number of evaluations principals are required to do on teachers and the strict curriculum that teachers have to teach, will they have time to meet the needs of all students? Creativity is being sucked out of schools in place of high stakes testing. What will happen to those students who explore their issues through art and music?

As much as one may suggest that social and emotional growth begins at home, which schools would agree with, not every household is created equally and schools do not have the time to sit around and wait for some of these households to get it together. These students are entering our doors every day. We need to be able to offer an education that will prepare them for their future but also meet the needs of the whole child.




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