The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Every Community Has its Own culture

on July 22, 2018

A while ago a newspaper article I read about poor school attendance touched on a view of education very different from the one that predominates in government, business, and the media today. While the Common Core Standards and the states that have signed on to them are calling for more rigor in K-12 grades and college or post-high school training for everyone, their message is falling on deaf ears in many places. For lots of American students and their parents attending school is just not that important.

Because of its significance I decided to re-publish this piece today.

The town featured in the article was a small rural one in Oregon with a high rate of student absence that can’t be explained by illness or poverty.  Last year 40 per cent of first graders were chronically absent, and 70 per cent of highschoolers missed enough days to equal five weeks of classes. When school officials and teachers were questioned about  those absences they came up with some interesting answers. For example: family hunting trips, a scarcity of local doctors, dentists and other medical services made it necessary for students to skip school. But the answer most often voiced was that the town’s families didn’t really feel  that regular school attendance was important.

In that town the majority of adults–who have no college education or not even a high school diploma—are working at jobs they like, earning adequate wages, and living social lives that satisfy them and their families.  One mother who was questioned defended her son’s absence for a recent three day hunting trip by citing family values: “What they are getting out of that experience outweighs the time at school—The bonding, the experience—what it takes to deal with a dead animal–is not something that will change for families like ours”. To the teachers and school officials that response seems more reasonable than many others they hear when parents are told that their children are missing too much school. Those answers boil down to “So what?”

Without examining the student absentee situation in other places, I’m convinced that there are many cultures of attitudes, customs, and beliefs everywhere that influence people’s behavior more strongly than any government message. Take a high poverty area in big city, for instance, where most adults have limited education, low paying jobs, and no savings. Typically, they do not expect their children to live lives any different from theirs. On top of that, the local schools are crowded, rundown, and tough on misbehaving or truant students. When a couple of kids in the neighborhood decide to take a day off, others think, “Why shouldn’t I join them? It’s a lot more fun than going to school.” Some parents may object, but their kids do it anyway. Other parents don’t know what’s going on; and still others figure it’s just normal kid behavior. That’s the culture of the community, and it’s hard to argue against it.

High poverty communities are not the only places where culture rules, however. There are towns and whole states that cling to the traditions of the past and see the world in terms of their own environment. For most people school is okay as long as it fits with their own values and customs.

For the present, I don’t see much of a chance for changing cultures. America will have to evolve into more of a melting pot than it is today. But I believe it is possible to make all schools more attractive and relevant to local populations without diminishing quality. Almost always there is an overlap between the local culture and the national vision of educational excellence that, if emphasized, would lure students and their families back to school. Let me describe, briefly, some things that could be done within that overlap.

First, provide more high school electives, especially courses related to the jobs available in the area, but also ones in the arts and crafts. At the same time, reconsider the widespread practice of requiring all high school students to take multiple courses in math, science, and a foreign language. For many young people such courses do not serve their current interests or their future aspirations.

Next, make community interests and activities part of the classroom curriculum. Young children can read–or listen to teachers read– descriptions of local events, then write about them to get others interested.  Older students can be encouraged to get involved with community service projects in their free time.

Building a distinct school culture can also be important to students. They can tend a school vegetable garden, “Adopt a Road,” organize an in-school recycling system, or form a crew of “safety partners” to protect young children from being bullied by walking them to and from school.

A school culture can also provide a variety of after-school and evening programs for students and parents by opening up the school in the evening for recreational activities such as swimming, table tennis, and Midnight Basketball. A school can also encourage community groups to meet at school for activities that interest them, from break-dancing to Bible study.

In addition, a school library can be converted into community service when a public library is not accessible. By keeping the school library open one evening a week or  Saturday afternoon, expanding the range of books, or scheduling book readings and discussions for different ages and interests the school library will draw in adults and children of different ages and interests.

For some communities, like the one mentioned earlier, having medical, dental or social services at school on certain days would be a powerful draw-in.

Finally, and most important, it would be wise to return school districts to local control. That means empowering the community school board to set student standards, determine the school calendar, select textbooks, and choose the types and frequency of student testing. With a return to local control the state’s major role would be to provide a variety of choices and assistance as needed.

To many readers the changes I am suggesting look too difficult or expensive for a small community. But having just one of them from time to time may open doors that would bring people together and strengthen their feelings of school importance.

Wounded pride, more than a concern for America’s place in the global economy, has brought a series of ineffective changes to K-12 education and produced a vast chasm between national policy and the needs of individual communities. After some 20 years under a barrage of school “reforms,” we are left with nothing more than failed policies, stagnant test scores, a growing hourd of “opt-out” parents, dis-enfranchised and demoralized teachers, and too few high school graduates prepared for quality jobs.

Ask yourselves, “Is this democracy; is this quality education; is this common sense?





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