March 24th, 2019

This World

Face it: Education utopia is an elusive goal. But here's how America can significantly improve its schools

Susan Weintrob

By Susan Weintrob

Published March 7,2018

Losing it

A retired educator speaks her mind

The news of another school shooting is painful. As a retired educator, it doesn't take much to imagine an incident in a school where I worked.

After 9/11, law enforcement and the FBI met with many of us. Training included strategies to lock doors, hide behind desks, keep in contact with the administration. Educators are there to protect the students—and some do heroically with their lives.

Yet we know that we cannot protect every student. That is heartbreaking.

In the case of Nikolas de Jesus Cruz, the failures of the FBI and law enforcement reveal a need for serious reorganization and communication sharing. The repeated missed opportunities by the FBI in other mass shootings (the Tsarnaev Brothers, Major Hassan or Omar Mateen) make this needed change urgent. The number of signs ignored is appalling. Had they been noted, Cruz would never have been allowed to purchase weapons, continue his abuse at home or plan a murder of innocents.

There are many failures along the way and many responses that are needed. Certainly, school security need to be improved. Teachers, parents and students need to meet to voice their concerns and suggestions and also be educated by law enforcement agencies. Jewish schools are far ahead of many public school in this area.

As an educator, I wondered how schools can best deal with these serious problems.

Small Schools.

I am a strong believer in small schools. And I am not alone. Much research from the National Educational Association, public and private school administrators and educational researchers support small school size, not only for academic reasons but also for their impact on violence and alienation. Many small schools or schools within schools already exist. And for good reason. Here's why.

Small schools have less absenteeism and higher graduation rates. Staff at small schools find it easier to follow up on students who don't show up, call in parents or guardians, and talk to other teachers and classmates to find where problems exist.

Small schools offer more opportunity for students to participate. To create teams or put on plays with fewer students, greater percentages are needed for the activity to be successful. Here's one instance. In my schools, we put on Middle School musicals. Any student who wanted had a role, from acting to chorus to set creation to tech support. School plays gave a boost to a feeling of togetherness and community.

Small schools more easily detect students who are hurting. We often hear of clues leading to violence—after the violence has occurred. That is too late. In small schools, teachers and staff notice if students stop interacting with peers, hide under hoods or begin nail biting, angry responses or failing classes. An adolescent I knew started to wear strange makeup and clothes, fail classes and eat alone. Her parents informed me she had begun cutting herself. Working together, we set up counseling and teacher meetings to share information and create support. Positive feedback and opportunities to retake tests were given to the student. Despite struggles and setbacks, in two years we saw a healthy and successful student, who began an interest in singing and composing music.

Small schools offer more opportunity for teachers to know each other. When I started teaching, other teachers would stop me in the hall for my hall pass. More than my looking young was the fact that in a high school of several thousand students, not only didn't teachers know all the students, we didn't even know each other. In small learning environments, there is time for the staff to work together simply because they know each other.

In small schools, there is more time to develop meaningful relationships between teachers and students. As a young teacher in a high school of more than 2,000, I had 5 classes of 30 students each-150 students. It took me a long time to get to know them. On the first day of one school year, I learned I had a blind student in my Junior English class. I signed up for a seminar at the Federation for the Blind. No teacher from my school had ever taken a class there. At school, I began meeting regularly with this student outside of class time to tutor her and to help her with other issues—such as maneuvering halls during change of classes. This was critical support for her, as she was also an orphan, a ward of the state. When I gave her a graduation present the following year, she told me it was the first present she'd received that wasn't from an organization. Why didn't we at the school know more about her before she entered our classes; why wasn't there a mentor, a buddy for her? Why was she on her own?

All reasons for small schools lead to this: the importance of knowing that we are connected to and we matter to others.

Small schools can create a sense of belonging because students and teachers know each other. We may never create a utopia that has no bullying, violence or academic failure. But there is something we can do.

We can know each student by name.

Knowing each child by name helps creates community. There is no anonymity. If a student entered a small school, as Cruz did on that fateful day, the staff would know this former student was forbidden to enter. If fellow students had seen his calls for murder on social media, there would be a trusted teacher, coach or administrator to tell. When we build schools, we're not building factories nor creating corporate environments. We are developing communities and future cultural norms.

Despite 24/7 social media and television, we appear to be unable to hold civil conversations with those we oppose. Marches call for the bombing of the White House, a comedian holds up a "severed" head of our president and public officials are disparaged in vocabulary that would've made our grandparents blush. Rap lyrics use violent language, racial and anti-Semitic slurs and speak of rape and abuse as norms. Hollywood calls for restrictions on citizens owning guns while they produce movies filled with violence and inappropriate language.

Our schools are microcosms. Is it any wonder that we see this violence, hate and anger reflected in there?

How do we create the sense of belongingness—the quality of being essential, of being an important part of something? We start by creating small schools.

We greet each student every day, giving the child the knowledge that he or she matters. Thousands of teachers already do this. So no child has to ask, "Do you know my name?" They already know.

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Susan Weintrob, one of JWR's very first contributors, is a retired educator who writes full time in Charleston, SC.

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