Barbara Finch writes about need to improve educational outcomes

Women’s Voices co-founder Barbara Finch writes about need to improve educational outcomes for our students

From Post-Dispatch, June 25, 2015

It’s mid-June and across most of Missouri, schools are out.

Unfortunately, “out” is a word that describes much of education in our state today.

Many of our students are “out” — of opportunities, of choices, of luck. Apparently, that’s because many of those who are responsible for educating these students are also “out” — out of ideas, out of creativity, out of resources.

We, the citizens of this community, ought to be outraged.

We have known for decades that many schools in the St. Louis area are in trouble. Three districts — St. Louis City, Riverview Gardens and Normandy — are unaccredited or only provisionally accredited. Their teachers apparently cannot teach and their students are not learning. Their fate has been turned over to bureaucrats in Jefferson City, where our legislators have abdicated their responsibilities to fully fund the school foundation formula and to fix the glitch in the transfer law, which is quickly driving the unaccredited districts into bankruptcy.

We have known for decades that many of our students are in trouble. They come to school ill-prepared to learn. They have physical and mental health challenges. They are difficult to discipline and when they act out, they are suspended. This puts them on the street, where the only thing they can do is get in trouble, or they are sentenced to in-school suspension, where they sit in classrooms with nothing to do.

We can do better than this, and we don’t need one more task force, one more study, one more forum, one more consultant or one more report to put on a shelf full of reports. We, the grown-ups in this community, ought to act like the educated people that we are. We ought to insist on improvements.

For example, we know that children learn better in smaller classrooms. So why do we keep putting 30 kids in one room? We know that teaching is enhanced when teachers have help in the classroom. So why can’t we have two teachers, or teaching assistants, or even volunteers in every classroom? We know that kids who have health problems have trouble learning. Why can’t we have school nurses, mental health counselors, vision and hearing specialists and nutritionists in every school? We know that art and music programs help children grow and flourish, so why do we keep cutting them out of the curriculum? We know that long bus rides in the morning and afternoon may help some students by putting them in classrooms with better resources and teachers. Why not bring the better resources and better teachers to all students in the struggling schools? We know that parental involvement is important to students in school. Why not equip schools with things that parents need in order to get them in the door?

Money, of course, is most often cited as the reason why we don’t do these things, but I’m not convinced that is the real answer. We seem to have plenty of money for other things in this state. And some problems can be solved with more creativity than cash.

In the Jennings School District, for example, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson has directed a remarkable transformation. In a district that was barely accredited a few years ago, she has brought test scores up significantly. She has made school buildings the centerpieces of their neighborhoods. Every school has a food pantry to make sure children don’t have to go hungry. She has even installed washers and dryers in schools, which parents may use in exchange for an hour of volunteering in the classrooms.

Richard Patton, executive director of Vision for Children at Risk in St. Louis, has said that there are at least 300 organizations in this area working on different aspects of child welfare. Really — 300 organizations? Then why are our kids in such bad shape?

I don’t want to denigrate any of these groups; many do great work and make important contributions. But what would happen if they all decided to work together on one thing to benefit children in the public schools? Could they possibly come together and decide, for example, that kids need to be healthy, and then all work toward getting adequate physical and mental health services in our schools?

So here’s another “out” word: outcome. Unless teachers, administrators, parents, civic leaders, politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, philanthropists and yes, students themselves, demand more, our educational outcomes are not going to improve. As one of the best educators we’ve ever had, the famous Dr. Seuss, wrote: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Barbara L. Finch is a former public relations consultant and co-founder of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. She lives in University City