Diary

"How Can We Expect Students to Learn if They Don’t Feel Safe?”

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Through the Franklin Center and Amplify School Choice, I had the opportunity to visit two Washington, DC area charter schools and hear ideas, information and opinions from various students, parents and leaders about school choice opportunities. Washington, D.C. is a mostly urban area and seems to reflect the opportunities and challenges of urban areas across the nation. Families with financial means may work in the city but they live in and their children attend schools in the suburbs. Lower income families continue to live in the city and, as seen elsewhere, their neighborhoods have become increasingly racially segregated. As I spoke to the students, administrators, and leaders, student safety became a common theme. When speaking with the charter school students who had attended public school before, safety was a notable factor in choosing to attend a charter school, even if it meant traveling an hour one way to get there.

According to a study done in 2002, School Crime Patterns, “High schools with the highest levels of violence tended to be located in urban areas and have a high percentage of minority students, compared to high schools that reported no crime to the police. They also tended to be located in areas with high social disadvantage and residential mobility. It should be noted, however, that a relatively large minority of the schools in the Violent Crime group were located in rural areas (36%), so that the image of school violence being solely restricted to central cities is not accurate.”

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Another study reveals “Urban schools suffer most from violence. Many of these schools serve neighborhoods troubled by violence and gang-related crime. It is not surprising that these problems find their way onto campus. But a study of 700 communities conducted by the National League of Cities revealed that 30 percent of suburban and rural schools also reported an increase in violence over a five-year period. In another survey conducted by the Children’s Institute International, almost 50 percent of all teenagers—rural, suburban, and urban—believe that their school is becoming more violent.” – The Challenge of School Violence, Constitutional Rights Foundation.

How can we expect students to learn what is being taught if they don’t feel safe?

During one panel, a panelist asked “How can we expect students to learn what is being taught if they don’t feel safe?”.

There are many factors that cause a school to feel unsafe. Classroom overcrowding, overwhelmed and/or under-performing educators, limited student understanding of future possibilities and apathy due to parental disengagement together can create a chaotic, unsafe environment.

The national average for a high school classroom size is 27 students. A typical class lasts 50 minutes where a teacher is expected to present and cover material to these students in a way that each student can learn and understand. Given the large class size and the short amount of time, it is unreasonable to assume that each of these students in each of their classes is absorbing and retaining the knowledge being presented and there is little time for teachers to provide necessary individual attention to each student. When students do not feel like they are achieving what is expected of them in the classroom, the resulting emotions of anger and frustration create an atmosphere of distrust between the students and the teacher and between the students themselves.

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Along with overcrowded classrooms, overwhelmed or under-performing teachers can contribute to a feeling of lack of stability within the school walls. Teachers are increasingly expected to remediate students who have fallen behind, educate students who are at grade-level and push to excellence those students who are high achievers, all while compassionately supporting these same students who are struggling with broken, dysfunctional or struggling home environments, peer pressure and the like. Some teachers manage this well, but with teachers’ unions in place in some states, there are numerous stories of under-performing teachers who cannot meet their students’ needs but continue to teach anyway. The stress of overwhelmed and under-performing teachers spills over onto their students and no one feels at ease.

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When I spoke with a few students at one of the DC charter schools about what they wanted to be when they grew up, they had actual answers, from computer scientist to marketing to obstetrician. These students were being taught that school is a gateway to their future. Many students who grow up in urban and rural areas are not exposed to the world-at-large. Their experiences are based on what they see in their neighborhood, their family interactions and their education. Given a low expectation for their futures, students won’t take their education seriously and most view it as a waste of time. Combine that viewpoint with a truancy officer and a parent who is in trouble because their student isn’t in school and it’s a ready-made chaotic situation.Students are being told to go to school but don’t really see the point of it because their narrow view of opportunities that exist after high school are not inspiring.

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Finally, parents have grown apathetic to their children’s educations because they don’t feel they have a choice in the matter. A panelist who was a mother of a charter school student related her experiences of trying to work with the D.C. public school system. Her biggest frustration was the levels of bureaucracy that she had to deal with to get, what she considered, simple questions answered. Most parents want their children to have the best education possible. But, when the only school that their children are allowed to attend is the worst of the bunch because the parents cannot afford to live closer to a better school, even parents get discouraged. Apathetic, uninterested parents only serve to exacerbate an already tense situation for a discouraged student.

I believe that if you ask any adult in the United States if they believe that students are important and that their education is a gateway to a student’s future, they will agree wholeheartedly. No one wants to see students fail. In our land of opportunity, every student should feel safe in their learning environment. As DC charter schools and other successful charter and private schools are proving, enabling and encouraging school choice is a fundamental means for ensuring that students, parents and teachers are receiving the best that schools have to offer including a safe learning environment.