Schools aren't just for teaching

September 07, 1996|By Harold Jackson

THERE HAS NEVER been a time in America when teachers did nothing but teach. Since colonial times and frontier days, teachers have taken more than academic interest in the children under their charge. They have tried to find out if problems at home were preventing learning at school. And, when possible, they have helped children overcome those problems, even if it meant telling parents what they were doing wrong.

What's different about now and then, what makes teachers look back nostalgically, is the severity of the problems children bring to school today and the greater likelihood that there's nothing a teacher can do to help. Too frequently, conversation with a parent (if you can find one to talk to) only leads to greater frustration.

The depth of the social and economic afflictions that many urban children bring to school makes it disingenuous for critics to keep chanting that you can't throw money at the problem. That is, unless they also admit that you can't throw administrative changes at the problem, or curriculum revisions, or teachers.

The problem is bigger than any of those remedies alone. But it's also bigger than they are collectively. Because those solutions can only be applied in the schools, and often that's not where the problem is. It's in the homes.

It's impossible to improve the performance of some schools without improving what happens to their students at home. Any teacher will tell you she gets better results when her students come to school ready to learn, not tired or hungry or abused or addicted or infected or pregnant.

Teachers who try to ignore the laundry list of dysfunctions staring them in face each morning at roll call realize by day's end that they can't. Teachers who try to fill the voids in so many students' lives discover by week's end that they have no life of their own.

Nor much time to teach.

The home factor

Someone other than the teacher is supposed to be responsible for preparing a child to learn. Ideally, that someone should be a parent, but in too many cases that's not going to happen.

Some schools have accepted that reality. They are taking direct steps to solve problems at home that affect a child's ability to learn. They're not waiting for a teacher to involve himself in a situation that he has neither the time or expertise to deal with.

Some critics say that's what's wrong with the schools, that they're trying to do too much. But if they don't do it, who will?

The job of the schools is education, but to do their job they need the right tools. And in today's America, that's not just books, chalk and computers, it's social workers, jobs counselors and substance-abuse experts -- and not just for the students.

One nationally acclaimed drop-out prevention program, Communities in Schools, identifies the problems students have away from school and helps provide the resources to solve them. The 1,025 schools in the program across the nation are models of intergovernmental cooperation, providing case workers from various social-service agencies who meet on site with children and parents.

There is no mystery as to where to send an adult once his problem is identified and he decides he wants help. If space for a desk and a telephone can be found, the appropriate agency can locate a staff person right inside the school.

America's public schools are evolving. Some have health clinics inside, some even have day-care centers. That's hard for traditionalists to accept. They want their schools to be about one thing -- education by a teacher in a classroom. In many settings, that's possible. But in too many big-city schools, it's not. To teach, those schools have to provide more.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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