Stop blaming the teachers and schools. Only a community-led initiative can drive change.
FOR THE PAST WEEK the Beloit Daily News has been publishing an in-depth series on issues within the School District of Beloit, ranging from disciplinary conditions to teacher morale and turnover to innovative programs initiated to address student performance.
We didn't do any of that to embarrass the district.
We didn't do any of that to cast the community in a negative light to outsiders.
We didn't do it to get the administrators or school board members in trouble.
We didn't do it to paint a target on the backs of kids.
THERE'S ONE OVERRIDING REASON behind why the newspaper tackled this project: The entire community needs to be aware of these issues before the community can take responsibility for fixing it.
Yes. Emphasis on community.
For the most part, troubling situations do not suddenly and inexplicably develop when a kid's feet hit the schoolhouse steps. More often, a child's pattern of aberrant behavior has been developed and is a direct result of the circumstances of the home.
That's why part of our reporting focused on Beloit's demographic statistics - high levels of poverty, high levels of unwed births, high levels of female-headed households with children, high levels of child abuse and foster parenting needs. It's not a mystery why Beloit experiences serious issues in its schools. A child experiencing trauma at home brings that trauma to school.
WE ALSO BELIEVE it's important to get the fact out there that Beloit schools are not warehouses for misfits.
Far from it. The numbers show more than 9 out of 10 students do not contribute to statistics on the most serious offenses. That means there are thousands of solid kids working with hundreds of top teachers in a district where young people can still obtain a world-class education if they're willing to apply themselves and work hard.
That's a firm foundation from which to attack the problems of disruptive individuals making it harder for teachers to teach and willing students to learn.
Inside the school buildings the right formula calls for committed teachers in the classrooms, backed by no-nonsense administrators prepared and empowered to take effective actions with disrupters.
Central administration and the board should support building administrators with an array of alternative programs for troubled kids, from stronger mental health services to household intervention strategies to extensive-as-needed alternative schools. A key component is courage - the courage not to be politically correct, to shake it up, to measure performance and enforce accountability in adults and kids, and expect more from parents.
THE PREMISE BEHIND alternative schools, in our view, should come down to this:
• Kids in the regular classrooms have a right to a focused educational experience. Routine and regular disruptions, over and over involving the same students, cannot be tolerated. To do otherwise is not fair to kids who want to learn, whose educational experience - and, therefore, their futures - is jeopardized by disrupters.
• Suspending or expelling those disruptive kids should be a last resort. Kicking a kid out just drops him or her onto the streets and right back into the trauma that likely triggered bad behavior in the first place. Some of those kids might like being relieved of the school obligation, but the net outcome would make a bad problem worse.
• Instead, we suggest more intensive alternative school options, with a heightened emphasis on instilling discipline - boot-camp style. Here's a hard truth. The kid who won't be disciplined - at home or at school - eventually will be disciplined, harshly, by society. Yes, we mean prison bars. Maybe worse. So for those who think, geez, boot-camp style alternatives sound kind of excessive ... consider how society will solve that kid's issues later on.
• Beyond discipline, the focus of alternative education should be about preparing kids to become functioning adults. That means the basics - how to dress appropriately, how to speak and interact respectfully with others, simple manners and courtesies, stress coping mechanisms, anger management, conflict resolution strategies. Emphasize vocational skills and training, with an escape valve for students whose behavioral progress and skills suggest an aptitude for higher education.
MOST OF ALL, the findings from our series of articles make abundantly clear the community cannot take a pass. Sitting at home in an easy chair complaining is neither a strategy nor a solution. Beloit does not have a school problem. Beloit has a community problem, requiring community solutions. These kids' issues begin at home, in the circumstances of their life. Improving those circumstances is largely beyond the reach of the school district. This is a sociological issue Beloit can no longer afford to turn away from, hoping for superhero performances from overburdened teachers.
Beloit has done wonders rebooting the community, from all the investments in the City Center projects to adopting a $70 million referendum that retooled the school district's physical facilities. But finer facilities, filled with the same issues, are unlikely to result in finer outcomes. Improvement will take the kind of community commitment to social issues that propelled the successes of Beloit 2020-led initiatives.
That's why we did the series. That's what we hope drives a communitywide conversation.
A FINAL WORD: Beloit's problems are not unique. Similar situations abound in urban America. Beloit, however, is a small town. If small-town challenges cannot be met and managed, is there any hope for places like Chicago, or Milwaukee, or Washington, D.C.? As we see it, the first step is admitting the problem is not the schoolhouse - it's us, all of us, who call this place home. What are we willing to invest, personally, to make a difference?