Let's do right by these kids

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Community should get behind innovative effort to reach youngest learners.

MANY STRANGE THINGS are going on in and around the School District of Beloit these days, the kind of activities and programs many residents - particularly older folks, who attended school decades ago - may see as frivolous or, at best, complete mysteries.

Let's mention a couple. An early childhood literacy program, championed by former superintendent Tom Johnson and headed by Rachelle Elliott, is working to reach kids long before they go to kindergarten - from birth, to be specific. That means reaching into the homes, to create partnerships with parents, to overcome obstacles that may limit positive childhood development.

At Todd Elementary School, there's an after-school program where kids do things like drum on buckets and learn yoga techniques while developing literacy skills. The objective is to improve social and emotional skills by helping youngsters learn to stay centered and calm.

WELL. WHAT KIND OF touchy-feely nonsense is that?

It's Beloit in the vanguard of change, that's what it is.

More fundamentally, perhaps, it's a reflection of urban conditions across America in the 21st century.

Talk all you want about record corporate profits, low unemployment and a soaring stock market. But the reality is there are many families struggling with deep disadvantages in our community. The majority of district students qualify for free school meals. Beloit's level of poverty substantially exceeds the national average, and its percentage of college graduates trails the rest of Wisconsin.

Beloit Memorial High School is a majority minority building. While we agree diversity is a Beloit strength, minority residents are statistically more likely to live in poverty. Make no mistake, though. Troubled children come in all colors, here and elsewhere.

ALL OF WHICH leads to an inevitable conclusion: Traditional approaches - the kind many of us remember from school - are not good enough anymore. Traditional education approaches might assume students arrive at the schoolhouse door with an intact family, with sufficient food in the house, from a safe neighborhood, with a warm coat in the winter and boots when it snows.

For plenty of kids, that's simply not true.

Beloit has a significant student population living in trauma.

It's insane to believe most of those kids can just be plopped down at a school desk and expected to learn the same way, at the same pace, as students who have advantages at home.

WE'RE GOING TO SAY something politically incorrect here, because it needs to be said and acknowledged without sugarcoating or excuses.

A lot of the problems faced by today's disadvantaged school kids can be traced directly to bad decisions made by their moms and dads. All too often, children are having children they're not ready for and they can't afford. "Fathers" may be largely absent and play little if any role in a child's care and upbringing. Households struggling for survival are unlikely to have books and educational play as a top priority. Dysfunctional homes can contribute to generational legacies, in which the same issues appear over and over.

The knee-jerk response is judgment. If people manage to screw up their lives through their own behaviors, why is that society's responsibility? They made the choice. They can live with the consequences.

For adults, there's a lot of truth in that.

Let us pose a question, though: Did the little kids make a bad choice?

Obviously, they did not.

Just as obviously, you can't fix the kid's situation without dealing with the household issues.

And, one more thought: The entire community would benefit by breaking the cycle.

So pack away judgment and look for a better answer.

INNOVATIVE PROGRAMS are attempting to change the dynamic. The programs recognize the earlier a child can be reached, the better the chance of success. Likewise, it's recognized the home must be part of the initiative, interacting with parents to improve the environment for the child. It will take extraordinary community effort to make that happen because it means challenging - diplomatically - the ways kids are being raised.

The district's Early Childhood Literacy program, with backing from the Stateline Community Foundation, will present something of a call to action on March 20. Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, a recognized expert in the field, will discuss the best ways to turn on the light of learning and support children and families.

We want to leave readers with this thought: Do not look away and conclude the schools have got this. Change will come slowly. There will be setbacks. It may take years to bear fruit. Be supportive. Be patient. And think about getting personally involved.

Remember, urban issues in Beloit are not different from what's found in Rockford, or Milwaukee, or Atlanta or any other diverse city. Also, keep this in mind: Beloit is a small town - fewer than 40,000 people. If Beloit can't bend the curve, over time, what hope is there for Chicago?

We thank the innovators and appreciate their commitment. These kids are our kids. Let's do right by them.

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