Public schools play broad role in communities

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. Half an hour before classes begin at Chase County Elementary School, dozens of children congregate in the gym, their conversations creating an overpowering din. Dozens more eat breakfast in the adjacent cafeteria.

More than 80 percent of the school's 160 children, kindergarten through fourth grade, typically remain at school into the evening reading, playing games or learning to dance while their parents work.

The rural school occasionally acts as a clothing bank, handing out a warm coat or a change of shirt or pants. For two weeks in February, it even served as the only roller-skating rink in tiny Cottonwood Falls, a town of less than 1,000 midway between Topeka and Wichita.

In both rural and urban communities across the nation, schools play similarly broad roles, dispensing medicine, offering counseling, attempting to build character and keeping kids out of trouble in the afternoon.

At Chase Elementary, Principal Diane Dodez said she learned early in her five-year tenure that telling families their children couldn't come to school early didn't do much good. Parents dropped them off anyway, because of their work schedules. Opening the gym early, therefore, serves a larger community need.

Educators say demands on schools have increased over the past decade because communities, parents and states want schools to combat social problems: children who need medical checkups, clothes, a healthy meal; children who come from troubled families.

Those demands are the reasons some Kansas education officials have felt squeezed financially in recent years, even though the state spends $2.6 billion more than half of its general revenues on public schools each year.

Educators across the nation say that support services are important to a suitable education, because a child who is hungry or stressed cannot concentrate on history or math.

''Most people don't understand that schools are a microcosm of society,'' said Tamara Cotman, the Wichita district's assistant superintendent of elementary schools. ''Everything that happens in the world comes into the school.''

In the 44,000-student Charleston County, S.C., district, Superinten-dent Maria Goodloe said schools' duties seem to grow every year as they attempt to support families, so that children do not have distractions from learning.

''We're really taking care of kids in a way that they aren't being taken care of at home,'' she said. ''It's a symptom of our environment, where we have babies having babies.''

The role of schools in meeting children's non-instructional needs is almost as old in Kansas as Chase Elementary, which opened in 1904. A state mandate that schoolchildren receive annual dental exams, for example, dates to 1915.

But in recent decades, the list of required services has grown. Among them are special education, which became mandatory in 1974, and breakfast programs.

Outside events also increase the burden.

In Havre, Mont., a security committee has been meeting regularly for eight years and was initially supposed to handle only special projects. Today education, municipal and law enforcement officials in the central Montana community of 9,600 expect to use school buses to move residents and schools to shelters should a train carrying hazardous materials derail or a bioterrorism event occur.

Superintendent Kirk Miller, who also is chair of Montana's Board of Public Education, said because schools take on new responsibilities and are reluctant to consider dropping others, ''You're running a sprint most of the time.''

Three years ago, Havre schools expanded school breakfast programs to all five of its buildings. The district contracts with a Boys and Girls Club to provide afterschool activities for 600 of its 2,000 students.

Kansas' Chase Elementary be-gan its breakfast program in 1992, one year before breakfasts for eligible children became mandatory throughout the state. About 50 kids eat at school every morning, though the count can spike when a favorite such as breakfast pizza or biscuits and gravy is offered.

Head cook Patsy Crutsinger said the need for the program became clear as hungry children kept complaining about stomachaches. ''Many times, teachers would be sending their kids down here mid-morning,'' Crutsinger said, referring to the cafeteria.

Most of the children who eat breakfast at Chase Elementary get the meal either free or for less than the $1.25 price the school quotes.

Meanwhile, about 30 percent of the 461 schoolchildren in the rural Chase County district as a whole qualify for free lunches. Those are the ones considered at risk of failing.

At Edisto Elementary School in Orangeburg, S.C., a student congress of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders has toy and food drives. This year, the 675-student school added a part-time mental health counselor.

''We noticed that a lot of our students faced social and emotional issues,'' said Principal Belinda Johnson.

Clothing banks are another service for poor or at-risk children.

In Wichita, Cotman said, schools in poor neighborhoods keep extra sets of clothes on hand because some families cannot afford to buy enough shirts and pants that meet the district's dress code, and children sometimes wear the same set to school several days in a row.

Chase Elementary keeps six boxes and a dresser of clothes in the teachers' workroom. Mostly, the stockpile is a hedge against spills, mud and other accidents, but staff members sometimes see students who aren't dressed warmly enough.

Dodez worries about the future of after-school clubs because a three-year, $1 million grant from the Kansas Juvenile Justice Auth-ority runs out at the end of the school year.

But she often has more serious concerns. She said she calls state social services officials about once a week because she is worried about a child, and once a month she meets at the county jail with law enforcement and social services officials to discuss troubled families.

She admits to crying sometimes in her office over the social problems she's forced to confront.

''It's not like we can send the problems elsewhere,'' she said.

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