Earlier this year I sat with Senior Writer Hillary Gavan on the bleachers in Barkin Arena at Beloit Memorial High School. We were there to hear what might come up at a Town Hall meeting involving hundreds of teachers and staff from across the district. The event was convened by members of the school board.
What we heard was a primal scream for help. The gathering was respectful, but over and over the message was loud and clear. Deep disciplinary issues existed, with a disruptive few blocking the learning experience for the many. Teachers felt administration did not have their backs. Class sizes exacerbated the problems, with two dozen or more interested students left virtually unattended while a teacher struggled to manage a couple of troublemakers. Teachers made clear they sometimes felt under siege or even physically threatened, and argued the district needed to take stronger action including improved alternative services and mental health options for disruptive students.
Shortly thereafter the Beloit Daily News embarked on a deep reporting project to look in more detail at what has been going on inside Beloit's schools. Senior Writer Gavan spent months submitting records requests, wading through reams of documents, tracking down and interviewing sources who could shed light, and speaking with school district officials about efforts to address student needs and staff concerns.
The findings include eye-openers at both ends of the negative/positive spectrum. The district indeed is dealing with deep problems, troubled students and staff challenges. Statistics show some families just remove their kids, and some staffers choose to leave. But the numbers also indicate the vast majority of Beloit students are not involved in any serious misconduct, and that a relatively small portion of the student body - often as repeat offenders - is behind most behavioral challenges.
That's where it all becomes complex. Disruptive students often live in trauma and bring those issues with them to the schoolhouse. Kicking them out just drops them deeper into the trauma. District leaders try instead to help lift troubled kids upward, showing them a path to a brighter future. It's hard. Very hard.
The inescapable conclusion: This is not a School District of Beloit problem. This is a community problem. Only a community solution - one that deals inclusively with both student issues and home issues - has much chance of moving the needle toward positive territory.
That's the purpose of this deeply-reported series of articles - to alert stakeholders not only about the problems that exist, but to challenge the community and the school district to step up in a much bigger way.
Senior Writer Gavan's series begins today and continues for the entire week. We hope it strikes a chord in Beloit's neighborhoods, in Beloit's business suites, in Beloit's halls of government, in Beloit's churches and institutions, and sparks stronger interest in making a difference for our kids.
- William R. Barth, Editor