The school year has yielded to the kids and their teachers having the summer off, and each is grateful for the time apart.
Carol Charismas had invited me into her seventh-grade English classes at Paseo Academy this school year to note the students’ progress as Kansas City Public Schools tries to achieve full accreditation. That was Superintendent Steve Green’s goal, but the district will have to achieve it without him. He’s leaving for a job in the Atlanta area.
Raising students’ test scores to achieve full accreditation won’t be easy. About 70 percent of the 15,000 students in the Kansas City district score less than proficient on academic exams. In the last week of school, Charismas wrote on her board for the class to see that test results from 38 of 40 students showed that those below grade level dropped from 56 percent to 44 percent. Those at grade level also fell from 28 percent to 14 percent. But those testing above grade level jumped from 16 percent to 42 percent.
The success brings back lessons Charismas covered with students on fables and fairy tales. The greatest fairy tale that adults believe is that in public education all things are created equal and the children’s homes, families and community don’t matter.
The students’ essays that Charismas shared with me about their families and neighborhoods showed some wrenching realities. It’s the noise teachers like Charismas struggle with to get the kids to learn.
It’s why urban school districts in high poverty, high crime, blighted communities need wrap-around, dietary, social, physical and mental health services. They’d help kids and families overcome financial and emotional struggles, where relationships are often fractured and learning suffers in the trauma. These are no fairy tales.
“I live with my mom, but we don’t have a relationship,” one student wrote. “Ever since my dad died, my mom hasn’t been the same. She’s been more angry and keeps yelling a lot so it’s hard to do anything at the house.”
A documentary, “The Raising of America — Early Childhood and the Future of the Nation,” explains that how children’s brains develop depends on their environment. Their brains are wired to expect responsiveness. Kids who are surrounded by love, attention, reading, playing and talking with a lot of vocabulary are better prepared and generally do well in school.
Parents’ daily worries over finances, safety, being overworked and having little or no support affects children. Living in such chronic crisis creates a toxic amount of stress for children, affecting their brain chemistry. It taxes teachers as well.
Another student wrote, “I never knew about my biological father, and don’t plan on getting to know him.” That’s an emotional tear, and sometimes it erupts unpredictably in school as anger.
Some of the children have suffered physical abuse, lived in foster care or with grandparents or guardians. Others have had parents or other family members in prison and suffered the emotional loss of family members who have been killed.
“My baby sister and my two uncles died,” a third student wrote, adding, “I quit smoking two months ago.”
These are seventh-graders — just 12 and 13 years old, convulsed by adult horrors.
A fourth student wrote, “My mother is a drug addict, and my father wasn’t in my life for 13 years, and I’ve only met/saw him for three years.”
Another wrote of not living with a sister who “would help me when I am depressed. My dad would beat my sister. It got so bad, she overdosed, but she’s OK.”
And this: “My life sucks because I can’t live with my dad. My mom left my father and said he did everything wrong. It does affect me in school because all I think about is dad! School is harder without being with both parents.”
It’s no fairy tale. The kids are gone for the summer. But the teachers in the fall will have to reach beyond the anger and the pain to get children to trust again and to learn.