Education takes a village: Communities count, and we need to count on communities

Voices of the State

Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When I was in school, things were very different. Nearly every child had parents who loved them and read to them before tucking them into bed. When they woke up, they had a healthy breakfast and went off to school ready to learn. They had access to health care and safe, comfortable homes.

While some of today’s kids still enjoy this kind of life — and not every family in the past generation enjoyed a happy, prosperous home life — there are many more children today who have difficult family situations.

Many are caught up in the persistent cycle of grinding poverty with little hope for a brighter future. They come to school hungry, feel unsafe or are threatened as they walk to school, and come home to an empty house.

Poor children score significantly lower on reading, math and vocabulary tests. They are much more likely to suffer from stunted growth, have lead poisoning and be forced to repeat a grade.

We have to care about the predicament of children beyond the schoolhouse doors. Our bus drivers, teachers, administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers and teacher aides are on the front lines in addressing America’s social problems.

But teachers, school board members and all other dedicated professionals who work in public schools today cannot do it alone — no matter how deeply we care or how many hours we work. We cannot meet our children’s many needs without the help and support of our communities.

Right now, we are singularly focused on student achievement, for that is our job. But, higher student achievement means more than simply scoring better on a test. It’s also about taking care of our children.

In Alaska, we have embarked on a journey to re-engage our communities in the lives of our children, and a recent workshop in a tiny, isolated village — reached only by plane or boat — illustrates why this is so important.

At this meeting, one the village elders got up to speak. In the Alaska Native culture, the elders are the most venerated people in the community and given great respect for their knowledge and teaching, so when they speak, everyone pays attention.

“For years we have been trying to tell people that we need to focus on the strengths of our communities, the strengths of our tradition and the strengths of our people,” the elder said.

“Fishermen have a common understanding.” When there is a hole in the boat, “we know we must act quickly,” he said. “If we are in sight of land, we try to slow the leak and make a run for the harbor, where we can safely work to repair the damage. However, if we cannot see land, we know that we must repair the damage because we have little hope of making it to safety.

“When it comes to our children and the health of our communities, we are far, far out to sea and out of sight of land,” he said. “Now is the time to use these ideas to fix the holes in our boats and allow us to carry all our children and children’s children to safety.”

This elder was a man with great vision.

We all must “fix the holes in our boats” — and thus make sure all our children are safely afloat. And that is why my theme this year is “communities count, and we need to count on our communities.”

Research from the Search Institute in Minneapolis tells us that, to succeed, every child needs five caring adults in his or her life. Remember when we were kids and knew that adults were always watching us? If not a parent, it might have been the postman, the grocer, the bus driver, a neighbor or a police officer. These people might not have been related to us, but that didn’t make any difference. We knew they cared and would not hesitate to help if needed.

Our communities must recapture that sense of caring. The Association of Alaska School Boards passed a resolution stating Alaska’s children must be our top priority, and that includes their health and safety, as well as their education. That message is spreading throughout my state and being echoed by faith communities, chambers of commerce, civic organizations and municipalities.

Invite folks to the table to talk about what kids need to succeed in the community. Start conversations about the schools and the children who attend. Let the community help solve the perplexing challenges.

I know it’s a big boat and there are many holes to fix, but we can only do it if our communities are in the same boat. Invite them in. Give them a paddle. Ask them to row with you. And together, you’ll make sure all your children arrive safely to shore.

Norman D. Wooten is a school board member from Kodiak and the president of the National School Boards Association.

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