Thursday, December 12, 2013

Schools of Well-Being

I've spent this past week at a loss, attempting to write about my visits to various wonderful places, while this five-part piece in the New York Times on a homeless 11-year-old girl is all I've been thinking about. While I have intentionally been using this blog to reflect mostly on what I see that's positive and inspiring, I feel called to share a little about why I left public school, and where I see this project fitting in to the necessary transformation of public schooling toward holistic centers for healing and well-being.

In the last few years, I had many students whose home lives were in various states of chaos. I had multiple students who were homeless, or between housing. I had students who had witnessed family members and loved ones killed by gun violence. I waited for ambulances with students: one who had had her arm torn open by the teeth of another student, another who had shredded his hand, punching through the window of my classroom door in a fit of anger. I brought in clothes, food, and offered my support emotionally before and after class. I carefully watched my wording in phone calls home for students who I was worried could suffer as a result of an angry parent. I agonized about how to validate and honor the emotional turmoil of my students in crisis, without derailing lessons that held daunting curricula and learning targets.

I tried to refer some of my students to specialists, but help was hard to come by. In my first school, the lone psychologist had a caseload of over 2,000 students, and spent all her time administering assessments and classifying disabilities. There was no time for remediation. The same 2,000 students shared one social worker who was in our building part time, and in another school the rest of the week. She was essentially a crisis counselor, meeting regularly only with children who were on suicide watch, or in the first few days after a violent episode. Students with chronic need, anything less than a crisis situation, received no support. We had one amazing social worker to ourselves, not through the city, but through a nonprofit program called Teen RAPP (Relationship Abuse Prevention Program) whose office was constantly swarming with students. Her organization's budget (and her job) was written out of the mayor's budget every year, and reinstated after a demoralizing and exhausting annual fundraising effort.

Charter schools, while I think well-intentioned (at least, the nonprofit versions), are taking the students whose parents are organized enough (or empowered enough, or connected enough, or educated enough) to enroll their children in opt-in programs, while those students of highest need become more concentrated in public schools. The schools in which I worked had a huge proportion of students with special needs (over 30%-- city average is 16%). Charter schools, though admitting students on lottery, also have the freedom to expel students who have learning or behavioral difficulties, which may be another part of the reason for this incredible gap in who is taking care of our most needy students.

The fact remains: our most vulnerable students, like Dasani, require on average more care, more resources-- more money, to put it bluntly, than students who come from more stable households. Right now, public schools are set up such that the children of wealthy people get the most resources, while the children of parents with next to nothing, like Dasani's, get little. We must restructure our public school system to offer children the support they need to achieve their potential; to attend to all of their needs, recognizing that academic success can only occur once a child's more basic needs are met.

I'm now spending my time in schools that recognize the importance of caring for the whole child. This is the only way that I can bear the responsibility of influencing the lives of young people. I hope so fervently that I can use my knowledge and passions in helping transform public schooling into schools of well-being, one day.

Read the article. It's one of the best I've read. Dasani, an "Invisible Child."


  1. This is so sad, and so beautifully written. I'm glad you posted this, it really needs to be shared.

  2. Thanks so much for this. After reading the NY Times article, I've had such a hard time thinking about anything else, either. I feel a huge wave of guilt when I think about my students who may be in situations similar to Dasani's, but how, as an overextended public school teacher of many extremely needy students, I don't have the time or resources to give them what they actually need. The education system's complete denial of this hierarchy of needs makes me so, so angry. Thanks for getting the word out there!

  3. Thanks Willow and Jacqui: As I reread this post, it's still true. Appreciate your support!