Students need more than just academic support

Populated by a high school boy and a pair of middle school girls, all with distinctly different learning styles, interests and personalities, my house is a veritable research lab on educational efficacy for the pre- and full-blown adolescent. It is far from the only shop in town churning out such data, of course, but seeing the challenges each kid faces at his or her respective schools over lo these many years has given me some perspective on the subject.

So here’s a newsflash: Adolescence is a terrifying and disorienting time – more so for parents than kids, and that is saying something. Given that, the concept of educating these people becomes secondary to that of ensuring they do not do themselves irreparable damage – or have it done to them by their exasperated parents – as they navigate the many choices, pitfalls and daily dose of drama offered the sixth-through-12th-grade set. It would be a lot easier not to care.

Alas, I do about all of the above. Ninth-graders seem to have an acuity for finding someone or something else to attribute any shortcomings to, making reminders about the importance of accountability my paramount mantra. And even though sixth grade girls seem to care a whole lot more about who said what to whom about thus and such, I am more concerned with what they are learning and how. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to ignore the former and focus only on the latter, so we slog through it on our way to the important stuff. This is an exercise in patience, as with all parenting endeavors, and gives me great sympathy for educators who must take deep breaths and try to redirect and refocus kids by the score.

The approaches my family has experienced, at both charter and Durango School District 9-R schools, reveal what a challenge educators have in reaching everyone who crosses their threshold. Logic tells us it is a numbers game. With limited resources – among them: funding, teachers, hours in the day – and a long list of requirements in terms of subject matter to cover and achievement to document, it is a wonder there is time for anything else. It is also no wonder the larger schools turn a relative hazy eye to the drama and distractions, compared to the attention paid at the charter schools. With fewer kids to deal with, the charter schools have that luxury – and kids for whom distractions are a setback, which is a big deal.

The community question about how to improve educational outcomes with diminishing dollars is a big one, and it takes place in the ever-present context of how to “reform” education. There is no magic bullet, but if there was one, I would have to say high standards, no tolerance for adolescent shenanigans and genuine concern for each student’s success are key ingredients. The extent to which teachers and parents establish such a culture and demonstrate that concern will, I suspect, be reflected in outcomes. For my own kids, that means I bug them relentlessly and show up consistently. But I am by no means a classroom mother – my showing up means nagging, helping with homework and undertaking the occasional cooking project. I do some, but not nearly enough, and it is primarily if not wholly focused on my own kids’ success.

There is ongoing debate about how best to educate kids, and there are manifold answers. Greg J. Duncan of the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine and Richard J. Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have teamed up to consider some of these and found there are some foundational elements essential to educational success. It should be no surprise these are wide-ranging: train teachers and develop curriculums to meet the Common Core standards; support low-income families with basic needs, including parenting advice and health insurance; use the latest research to guide curriculum selection; provide extra support for schools with high numbers of low-income students; and, my favorite, create “an atmosphere in which teachers and school leaders have a deep-seated responsibility to their colleagues for educating every student,” according to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. That requires a few steps back and significant support from families to do the same – not to mention active participation from students who might be otherwise inclined, regardless of their teachers’ and parents’ best intentions and efforts.

All of this gives me immense sympathy for schools and districts tasked with Sisyphean feat – too often with not enough help.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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