Education Opinion

Needed: Caring Schools

By Joseph Sanacore — March 07, 2001 6 min read
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Children come to school with a wide variety of needs, and therefore should be treated as whole people rather than as detached receptacles for academic knowledge.

The media are packed with stories about failing schools. Inner-city schools, in particular, are portrayed as bureaucracies unable to help minority students achieve. With notable exceptions, such as James Traub’s examination of the roots of underachievement published in The New York Times Magazine on Jan. 16 of last year, most journalists blame schools alone for poor test scores, and rarely look deeper. Regrettably, the worth of schools is usually determined by standardized-test results, which, at best, provide a rough index of academic achievement.

Although helping students achieve academically is a major goal of public education, children come to school with a wide variety of needs, and therefore should be treated as whole people rather than as detached receptacles for academic knowledge.

Consider, for example, the impact on children of the following demographic trends:

  • About 50 percent of first marriages in the United States, and 60 percent of second marriages, end in divorce. Recent social science research has demonstrated how devastating to children such family breakups can be.

  • Single parents, married parents, and remarried parents are joining the workforce in ever-increasing numbers. Few children have a caregiver at home who does not also have a full- or part-time job.

  • A report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York indicates that the toll of too much unsupervised time after school for millions of teenagers includes involvement with drugs, alcohol, sex, and gangs.

  • A recent Gallup Poll reports that 6 percent of adolescents have tried to commit suicide, and that 15 percent have considered suicide, because of family problems, depression, conflicts with friends, feelings of worthlessness, and difficulties with male- female relationships.

  • Surveys on television viewing suggest that American elementary school children watch about 30 hours of programming each week.

Compounding these trends is the socially toxic environment in which children are being raised. James Garbarino, a Cornell University professor and a co-director of its Family Life Development Center, says that an increasing number of children are experiencing a world poisonous to their overall development. Violence, poverty, and other life pressures are producing alienation, nastiness, paranoia, and depression. These and other social pollutants undermine families and communities as they threaten children’s emotional well-being.

One critical component of this toxic mix is the departure of adults from children’s lives. Some studies suggest that there has been a 50 percent decline over the past three decades in the amount of time parents spend actively engaged with their children. Professor Garbarino believes this lack of constructive involvement of adults exacerbates the effects of other negative influences in children’s lives.

What can schools do to promote a more caring environment, one that attempts to negate the impact of harmful social trends while promoting better academic achievement? Foremost would be our acceptance of the fact that it really does take a whole village to rear a child. This folk maxim supports the notion that students’ total development—social, emotional, spiritual, and experiential—is something that cannot be separated from their academic success. Without broad- based support from the community, teaching in the school will take place in an unsustainable vacuum.

Fortunately, a number of educational studies and innovative programs highlight the importance of children’s overall development to school success. For example, the School Development Program, founded by the Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer more than 30 years ago, involves educators, parents, members of the community, and even churches. Its comprehensive mission is to carry out developmentally appropriate activities that help disadvantaged students improve their social, emotional, and academic growth. Through well-planned efforts, the key players become active participants in governance teams. The Comer program recognizes the importance of community activity in sustaining educational reform. Its ultimate metaphoric aim is to have children caught in a seamless web of caring people.

Another program enlisting the aid of caring people is Australia’s Talk to a Literacy Learner, also known as TTALL. It was developed by Trevor Cairney of the University of Western Sydney and has been implemented in the urbanized suburban schools in the western part of that city. As one might expect, families there are exposed to the problems of any high- density urban setting, including high rates of unemployment, divorce, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and vandalism, as well as minimal involvement in the schools. TTALL has been effective in reaching out to parents and providing workshops that help them become active learners and respond effectively to their children’s school needs.

Without broad-based support from the community, teaching in the school will take place in an unsustainable vacuum.

Parents are also taught how to be resources for their schools and community. They learn to help children other than their own and to share insights they have gained from the workshops with other parents. As the program’s ability to help adults in the community has grown, so, too, has the children’s literacy learning, especially their progress in reading and writing.

Regrettably, such innovative programs for disadvantaged children and their families are often criticized for their emphasis on such global aspects of growth and development. Critics argue that too much energy is directed toward holistic learning and self-esteem building, and that not enough is focused on skills development and academic content. This narrow view, reflected in our national standards and testing initiatives, is gaining momentum, with some resulting short-term successes and failures.

Longitudinal success, however, requires more than prepping for tests. It is based, instead, on the emotional considerations and hard work that foster collaboration, self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, and commitment to developing a lifetime love of learning.

Critics also maintain that innovative programs are costly and increase school taxes. They fail to realize that money constructively spent today can reduce expenses for future remedial services, eliminate the psychological frustration related to failure, and decrease the number of school dropouts. This cost-effective approach increases the chances that high school graduates will be successful problem- solvers who continue their education and become productive members of society.

No one has yet developed a perfect scheme for resolving the issue of underachievement in American schools. Responding to students’ strengths and needs in “big picture” ways is a step in the right direction. Schools need to strike a balance of caring and substance, because students thrive on both perspectives.

Joseph Sanacore is on the faculty of special education and literacy at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, in Brookville, N.Y. He writes frequently on school improvement issues.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Needed: Caring Schools


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