Tuesday March 26, 2013

I've been worried about my son starting kindergarten since ... well, honestly, since right around the day he was born. As a former educator, I am acutely aware of the ways in which schools cannot possibly meet all his needs. I know this, and yet, I still want them to. My spouse, thankfully, reminds me of our son's superb resilience and his remarkable ability to get his needs met. He's a full-time advocate for his desires. And yet, the worry has still lingered.

Recently, though, I noticed my anxiety slipping away when I attended kindergarten registration at Green Street School. We met with the teachers, administrators and support staff to learn the ropes -- although this may not be the school our son will eventually attend. Brattleboro no longer has neighborhood schools. This decision was made, in part, to consolidate programs, but in a larger, philosophical push, to insure economic diversity at all three of the elementary schools. Now your child may be placed at any elementary school.

While we talked with the adults, our son had "choice time" in one of the kindergarten rooms, and our 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter repeatedly expressed her indignation at our assertions that she was not quite ready for kindergarten. In between soothing and cajoling, we spoke with a parade of professionals. The orientation process was astounding.

Schools juggle so many big issues. Staff members interviewed and observed my child to see if there were any Speech/Language issues that needed early intervention. An ESL teacher gathered information about the predominate language spoken at home, and the nurse questioned us about medical issues, major and minor, that might impact my son's learning. Although he is prone to using puns, has a diet that consists primarily of applesauce, and demonstrates his desire to learn Italian by speaking in an Italian accent, I sensed these were not the issues or concerns that the educators had in mind.

The discussion that really expanded my sense of the work of schools was the one that happened within the counselor's office.

Although I have seen the colossal emotional baggage that students bring with them to school each day, I was still unprepared for this question: "Has your son witnessed or experienced any trauma in his life?" The question landed with a terrifying thud in my solar plexus. Although I felt sublime relief that I could answer an unequivocal "No," I ached for the parents and children for whom this question was fraught with desolation, or worse, an uncomfortable familiarity. This question is on the standard list of queries for incoming kindergarten parents because there is a genuine need to ask it. This thought made me ill.

At a K-8 school staff meeting over 10 years ago, we discussed the expanded free breakfast and lunch programs at our school. Several teachers voiced concern that we had ceased being teachers and now acted like parents. We all felt the desire to give all students the tools and resources to be successful in school. But there was also unease at how the lines between teaching and parenting had markedly blurred. Schools now act as proxy parents in countless ways because families cannot meet their obligations due to drug abuse, mental illness, grinding poverty, incarcerated parents, and other distressingly difficult scenarios.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, just about 11 percent of Windham County residents live below the poverty level. In our Brattleboro town schools, more than 50 percent of our students receive free or reduced cost lunches. According to data from the 2002 Community Assessment Project, over 52 percent of single moms with children under 5 years old live in poverty in Windham County. Since 1999, Windham County has had a higher percentage of "new families at risk" than in the rest of Vermont: Young women under 20, without a high school diploma, who have children. This puts our schools under tremendous pressure.

I used to direct a co-ed residential summer camp in central Vermont. We sent 11- to 15-year-olds all over New England on adventure trips. Because there were so many inherent risks in our program, we would ward off the evil eye by challenging it. Our favorite joke was that a successful day of camp program was a day with no deaths. This macabre humor helped assuage our ever-present anxiety and kept us focused on the most important aspect of our jobs: Keeping kids safe.

Our schools are now in a similar situation, I fear, but it's no joke.

In Brattleboro's Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, we wrestled with the school budget for hours. As I listened to the debate, I realized that we were tangling with a heart-rending paradox. We want to keep taxes low to assist the poorest among us, but it is these same families that often need schools to provide vital, but expensive, support services. In this year's budget the allocation for student psychological services increased 22 percent. This money holds children's lives together; it's not bells and whistles as some reps implied.

I know there will be times when I'll fret about all the non-academic issues that will pull my son's teacher's attention away from actually teaching. But I also know that I must be invested in the health of our school as a whole, and not just my personal piece of the puzzle.

And I must gratefully acknowledge the wealth of resources and resilience my family is so fortunate to have.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.