I can’t get Melcher Elementary out of my mind.
I dropped by the school at 3958 Chelsea Ave. a couple of weeks ago shortly after a school bus carrying Melcher students home one afternoon got caught in crossfire, possibly from rival gangs.
My visit came the same day that Superintendent Mark Bedell swung by to check on those kids. What I witnessed will stay with me for years as a dozen grade-school kids recounted in horrifying detail the events of that day.
What I left with was deep admiration for the courage of those kids, renewed respect for Bedell and great appreciation for what the staff at Melcher confronts each day. The school remains a case study in the challenge of teaching kids in lower-income neighborhoods. Many of the issues that arise there are far rarer in Lee’s Summit or Blue Valley.
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One lesson: The next time you’re tempted to raise your eyebrows over the unending struggles of Kansas City’s still-not-fully-accredited school district, check yourself and remember Melcher.
Here, teachers talk about how glad they are that their students were sitting low on the bus that day when bullets flew. They handle questions from third-graders, such as, “Why are people shooting so much?”
“I just kept thinking to myself, thank God all those kids were seated on that bus,” Principal Patrica Hayes said. “You don’t stand up.”
These are kids who go to school so stressed over violence in their neighborhoods, or tensions at home, or their ongoing battle with persistent hunger that focusing on what a teacher has to say just doesn’t happen.
The differences are that stark. You tend to forget all that until you show up and hang around. The only good news that afternoon when a bullet shattered a bus window was that no one was hurt.
But the impact of the bullet undoubtedly still resonates. “You can’t learn when you’re scared” is what Hayes told me when I visited. She was adamant: Kids also can’t learn if their basic social needs go unmet.
So that’s why Melcher offers food besides what’s served during lunch hour. And the school has extra hats and gloves for these cold days.
The motto at Melcher: “We’re a help and wellness school.” Kids get their eyes checked and their teeth examined. They can receive anger management training.
The same day that Bedell was sharing pizza with the kids who’d been on the bus, he asked how the district could help. There wasn’t a nanosecond of hesitation before the recommendations flew.
“Protection,” one student blurted out.
“Have gates around the school,” said another.
“Bodyguards,” said a third.
“And warriors,” said one boy.
One thing that would help is better assurances that kids can get to school safely each day. We’ve editorialized about that and plan to push it until city leaders act. The editorial board pointed out that Chicago has a “Safe Passage” program that aims to provide better police protection around well-traveled school routes in that violence-plagued city.
Bedell thinks that would help here, too. How couldn’t it?
Educators such as Bedell and Hayes are attempting to teach kids in the face of challenges that buckle your knees when you stare them in the face. You wonder how they do it.
But they are doing it, and that’s another lesson from Melcher. Despite long odds, they pound away. That’s a commitment worth celebrating.
Your skepticism? Put it in a drawer and lock it. It’s that misplaced.