Guest column: Society has changed, and kids along with it

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 5, 2002

Every day in the Albert Lea School District, some students come to school unprepared for that day’s learning. Some of them didn’t do their homework. Some of them didn’t get a good night’s sleep because their parents weren’t around to get them into bed. Some of them carry emotional burdens laid on them by family members going through crises of one sort or another. But all of them will be expected to complete their lessons and keep up with their classmates. Since the family can’t &045; or won’t &045; help them, the school has to take on the parents’ role in those children’s lives as well.

Discussions about school funding often take many twists and turns, sometimes leading us to issues that actually lie outside of school. How families have changed over the past 30 years is one of those issues. Nobody has to argue or prove that society has changed since those who are now grandparents were still children. But we don’t always pay as close attention to how families and children are different now because of those changes in society, or how those changes affect schools.

TEAM members think you need think about these changes as you decide how to vote this fall, because the way students and their families have changed means schools have to hire staff and shift resources to cope with those changes. And that means more demands on a district’s general fund, demands that often a school can’t ignore because it directly affects a student’s ability to learn.

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Are today’s students ready to learn when they show up at school? Many are, but not as many as there were even 30 years ago. Among the issues that affect what happens at school are these:

– Children whose parents work two or more jobs, leaving little time to help with homework or deal with discipline problems at school

– Families going through major upheaval (job loss, divorce, substance abuse), which leads to emotional instability in children

– Children who wouldn’t even have been attending the local public school in the past, because they would have been overlooked or considered uneducable

All of these family issues create situations that require schools to take action. Staff members have to make time to help with homework. This means they can’t be doing something else. Lowered expectations for discipline at home mean that schools have to hire more social workers and police officers to enforce the school’s expectations for behavior. Whether the lack of time for homework and discipline is the result of exhaustion on the part of parents who work long hours to provide economic stability or from plain old apathy, the cost to schools is ongoing. Finally, educating students with disabilities, a federal requirement, can mean unbudgeted expenses, only some of which are paid for by other institutions (a huge burden all by itself!).

The basic fact is that everybody now expects schools to solve social problems. Along with teaching students math, science, language skills and social studies, schools are also expected or required to pay for programs dealing with teen pregnancy, substance abuse, sexual harassment and abuse, and divorce. And those expectations often don’t come with extra funding.

The members of TEAM know that one excess levy won’t solve all of these problems, but if you vote yes on both levy questions this Nov. 5, it will make it easier to meet the needs of children who aren’t ready to learn when they come to school and to maintain the academic programs that are supposed to be a school’s priority.

This article was written with contributions from David Behling, Stephan Lund and Dennis Dieser. For more information about TEAM (Together Education Achieves More) or the excess levy, or to invite a TEAM member to speak to a group, contact Dieser (373-7451), Tom Ehrhardt (377-2409), Becky Johnson (377-3812) or Terri Wichmann (373-3530).