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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Have We Reached ‘Critical Mass’ Addressing Social Programs in Schools?

By James Hoffman — August 07, 2013 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by James Hoffman, Ed.D. James is the Superintendent of the Averill Park Central School District (Averill Park, NY).

Have you, like me, ever wondered why it is that school districts are the first place that legislators go to implement new programs that are obviously non-academic in nature?

Why does it get placed in the lap of the local school district?

To better understand, a short walk down “memory lane” is necessary...

At the beginning of the Second World War, a peacetime draft was instituted in the US for the first time. When those draftees began showing up for basic training, military leaders were horrified. Large numbers of recruits had rotted teeth, poor dietary habits, personal hygiene issues, and were in overall poor physical condition. This put an expense on the military that was not expected nor desired.

As a result, a nation-wide push to begin programs in schools to teach children about how to take care of themselves, their bodies, and their living conditions. The course was generally called Health Education, and became a standard in schools across the country. At the same time, routine physical education classes became the norm as well. This proved to be very successful, and a change was noted even in the short period during the war itself.

After the war, growing prosperity put automobiles in the hands of youth for the first time, and public sentiment was that driving skills were lacking. So, a program called Driver’s Education was instituted across the country as well, and soon became an institution in schools, along with health and physical education.

Well, you can see where this is headed...

Every time a social issue became something to address, the public schools became the focal point of the solution. Why? There are many reasons. First and foremost, it was the easiest and most democratic of institutions to meet the needs of the vast majority of children nationally.

Secondly, due to compulsory attendance, it was difficult for students to “opt-out” as is popular in our country regarding any philosophy that may be considered valuable to the majority, but disliked by too many to make a voluntary program effective. So, most of the next 40 years was spent adding program upon program to meet the needs of society through the schools.

There is a laundry list of them:
Free or reduced breakfast and lunch
• Drug education
• Sex education
• Diversity education
• Medical checkups
• Dental checkups
• Requiring vaccination against communicable diseases
• Mental health services
• Body mass index (BMI) examination

...Just to name a few.

Even probation officers meeting students facing legal problems have the ability to meet their caseload in school.

Schools taking on societal issues
Right now, New York State has a new program that plans to house all community social services for those in need within the school buildings, to ensure their delivery. It continues on and will continue to do so.

The question that is not asked is whether it is appropriate to do so. It is certainly the simplest method to use, but do these programs draw away attention from the purpose of schools, to provide an education for youth? (I mention that just in case it slipped your mind why schools are in place.)

Most educators today have grown up with many of these programs in place, and each one is in the best interest of the child, certainly will not hurt them, and justified in many ways.

Who would want to end free and reduced meals to students who may not otherwise receive a good, balanced meal?
Who wants to ignore obesity by taking away education efforts?

We think about the elimination of these programs and realize that students’ ability to concentrate on academics will fade along with the elimination of these programs.

However, there is a flip side - running programs through schools makes societal issues the problem of school districts. A perfect example is sex education. It was put in place to combat the rising birthrate with teen mothers and to combat STDs. Their lack of success suddenly becomes a failure of the schools.

“Why don’t the schools do something about all these unwed mothers?”

Will the rate of adult obesity be the responsibility of the schools as well, now that BMI checkups are mandated? At what point does the school let go?

I am not trying to say the school does not have a role in assisting the community in a community-wide problem. It just makes one wonder if we have reached “critical mass” with regard to social programs in schools.

Have local, state, and federal governments taken the easy way out and placed a societal problem on the doorstep of public education like an unwanted child?

Should other methods be employed to provide those services, as these programs are counted as education costs?

In an era of fiscal constraint, schools have come into the crosshairs of those who wish to lower taxes. Local school taxes, being voted upon by the community, are seen as bloated and excessive. Perhaps if we return to our core mission of education, with just those costs, perceptions of what education is, and is not, may change in the minds of the community.

The danger of writing on this topic is that I may be perceived as someone opposed to social programs for those in need. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a strong proponent of a social service net for those in need.

I am, however, also a proponent of a free public education system, and I fear the “piling on” of these programs will not only erode the core purpose of public education, but diminish the perceived value of our educational system to the public at large. Perhaps a second look at how social services through the schools are offered is warranted.

Should schools be the agency of first resort?

Connect with Jim on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.