We often lift up the success stories of students who have overcome enormous obstacles in their lives to stay in school and achieve in life.
Many times, we overlook the stories of kids who nearly didn’t make it – because they lacked the type of supports offered by Communities In Schools. These are difficult stories to tell, but important ones, because they remind us of what’s at stake – the physical health, emotional well-being and intellectual achievement of millions of kids.
Stephen is one example. He started 1st grade full of energy and enthusiastic.
A few months in, something changed. His teacher noticed the bags under his eyes each morning. Several times, he showed up to school without a lunch, explaining that he’d forgotten it at home. His school-issued uniforms looked wrinkled. There were no supports of the kind offered by CIS in his school, so several months passed before the teacher had an opportunity to speak to his mother at a school conference. The teacher gently suggested to his mom that he be better prepared for school each day and for a time, he was.
By 2nd grade, the pattern returned. But this time there were more small signs of concern. Stephen showed up the first few days of winter without a warm coat or hat. He was absent more frequently and began to fall asleep in class.
When the teacher asked Stephen if something at home was troubling him, he said things were fine. But a classmate’s parent wasn’t so sure. She’d seen a newspaper clipping in the hometown paper, about a domestic disturbance at Stephen’s home. Reluctant to gossip or intervene at school, she began inviting the boy home for a few hours after-school to play and do homework.
Helpful as it was, Stephen still had problems at school. In 3rd and 4th grade, his signs of distress were noticed not only by teachers, but by other students. Stephen’s wrinkled clothes, uncombed hair and poor hygiene attracted the attention of bullies. On the bus and in the school yard, he was targeted. His “lost” or “forgotten” homework assignments affected his grades. The teacher finally spoke up, but only to warn his mother that Stephen might be held back. Angry and frustrated, Stephen began to act up in class.
By now you’ve guessed that I am Stephen. My story is no different from millions of other kids across America. Except when I was growing up, programs like Communities In Schools didn’t exist. Teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors and principals may have recognized the warning signs, but didn’t know how to help me cope with the worries I was bringing from home into the classroom.
Fortunately, a perceptive and helpful 5th grade teacher named Mrs. Marone did. Somehow she knew I needed special support. She arranged subsidized lunches, extra homework help, and after-school enrichment. Most importantly, she told me that she was there for me. Those things helped me deal with my situation until things finally settled down at home.
I think a lot about what might have happened if another teacher or trusted adult had stepped into my life earlier - or worse, if Mrs. Marone had not. Really, it doesn’t matter. I did receive the help and support I needed and just in time.
But there are far too many other kids like me, in small towns and big cities, who are showing up to school carrying a backpack loaded down with burdens. Teachers are too busy or ill equipped to deal with those issues. The kids are embarrassed to speak up, so they shuffle from class to class and move from grade to grade, sometimes invisible, but many times showing small but unmistakable signs of distress.
This is not to say that teachers, school counselors and other parents ignore these signs or don’t help. In my case, there were many kindnesses along the way – lunch money from a teacher, a spare pair of winter gloves, extra time for a homework assignment and invitations for dinner.
But we know now, that kids in distress need support that’s targeted to their situation, sustained over time and aligned with any help they need in the classroom.
That’s too much to ask of busy teachers and school counselors who don’t have the capacity and training to deliver those supports.
That’s why sharing my story is so important, to let you know the stakes are too high.
Programs like Communities In Schools can wrap those students in the type of comprehensive supports that weren’t around when I was a kid and ensure they get the chance in life they deserve.
Do you have a similar story to share? Let us know in the comments below and together we can help change the picture.