"Issues and Action in Education"

The expansive and innovative roles schools must take

By Julia Steiny

EdWatch a nonprofit organization.

EdWatch Index

April 2008



 "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free," Ronald Reagan.

In the front office of The Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, a tiny boy with shiny, jet-black hair sits at a small desk, wriggling and squirming with a swaying motion. He makes no noise, but as a perpetual motion machine, he’s far too agitated to be in a classroom. But he doesn’t seem inclined to bolt from his seat or otherwise protest his circumstances.

Jackie Torres, who runs the front office, is working on a computer at a big desk next to the boy’s small one. She looks up from her work, watches until she catches his eye, when her face softens into a warm smile. He smiles in return, if faintly, but they connect, reassuringly, and go back to what they are doing.

Actually, when you look around, there’s a little desk sitting next to every one of the big desks in the administrative offices. All the grownups here — the business manager, the fundraiser, the directors — act as the special grownup friend to two or three children. The school’s children come from rough city neighborhoods and stressed families, so they sometimes need a surrogate parent.
Since its inception in 2004, the school’s founders and codirectors, Sarah Friedman and Meg O’Leary, have been part of the school’s child study team, designed to watch over the social and emotional issues among the kids. With a current student body of 280 — grades K-4 — the team has identified about 30 children who need “planned breaks” from the classroom, time they spend with the staff member who best connects with them.

The little desk next to Torres is also for the unplanned break any child might need when having an especially bad day. The wriggling boy will talk things over with one of the directors, as soon as she is free.

Friedman says, “Many of our parents work two, three jobs so their kid badly needs more adult attention. We put in place positive attention-getting systems. Kids can earn a special lunch with us, for example. They water plants with the maintenance guy. Sometimes we work with parents to find a few minutes a day they can be with the kid regularly. Or because of schedule, they can come in and have lunch at the school, or even make a phone call midday from work, just so there’s some conversation.”
The point is that a child can’t learn if she’s messed up with worry, anger, fear or longing and needs adult help. I marvel how few schools have real strategies for handling a student’s distress. Often schools just try to punish the child into behaving. When he becomes really disruptive, the adults punish him harder.

At the Learning Community, the child study team gets to the bottom of problem behavior, which often involves working directly with families. When problems can’t be resolved at school, a staff member goes to the children’s homes. (A separate academic study team watches over students who are having learning difficulties.)

Take a child like the one I’ll call Joey (a composite of several kids). Joey is in custodial care, meaning that mom or dad thrust him on a relative and split, or that the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) removed him from his home and found a relative to take him. The DCYF does not have the resources to give much help to these “kinship” living arrangements. So grandma or auntie now has a kid (or more than one) whom she didn’t expect or particularly want.

Joey is angry. He’s smart, endearing and handsome, but angry. Who wouldn’t be? But he gets himself so upset he can’t be in class. The custodial home is working well with the school and deeply grateful for its help. He hangs out regularly with a grownup he trusts, at one of the small desks. But that’s not enough. He can be rough with other kids on the playground, and once he bolted into the neighborhood, leading school staff members on a frantic chase, and now he can’t be allowed outside for recess.

How can the team keep him without flagging him as “bad” or otherwise making him a target for teasing? He’ll have recess in the conference room, but since he also has trouble making friends, the team decides to allow him to invite a friend or two to play board games with him.
Friedman says, “Suddenly it’s so cool to have special recess in the conference room. So ‘I wanna go! I wanna go!’ Who knew he’d be so popular? Now he’s building actual relationships. Now he’s starting to have friends. And he feels more part of the classroom when he’s there. So now he has a great rest of the day.”

This strategy works. One such Joey was recently weened off the planned breaks and other supports. As Friedman says, “Now when we see him out at recess mediating a conflict, our hearts melt with pride.”

Most schools would have punished Joey’s behavior, perhaps taking away his recess by sticking him in an isolated spot in the cafeteria. Perhaps he’d be suspended from school altogether, as are 4 out of every 100 Rhode Island elementary students each year. If the behavior persists, he would be evaluated for special education, even though what’s wrong with him is that his family fell apart. And when the punishments didn’t work — how could they? — he would get madder and madder.

The school staff would start to think of Joey and his family as hopeless and spend their energies thinking about how to manage as long as they’re stuck with the child.

The Learning Community works with Joey’s life — his family, home and friends.
People who resent charter schools often claim that charters toss the difficult kids back to their regular public schools. On the contrary, I don’t know of a district public school that works as closely with the Joeys and the families of the Joeys of this world as does the Learning Community.
Friedman says, “We are coparenting the child with the parents.”

My readers often write to say that this sort of social work shouldn’t be the job of the schools. OK, it shouldn’t. Then what? The problems are certainly interrupting the child’s learning, and probably making a misery of the classroom. Even if it’s not the school’s job, precisely, seeing to the child’s care is definitely in its interest.

Friedman doesn’t make it sound as though the work is easy. It’s not. It can be heartbreaking.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project. She can be reached at juliasteiny@cox.net , or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

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