Let me tell you a story.
I have a patient. Let’s call her Alex. Alex is 7 years old and she’s in Kindergarten at an SISD elementary school. She has attention deficit disorder and anxiety. This has led to a lot of behavior problems at school. Her home situation is chaotic to say the least. Alex’s dad is not consistently “in the picture”. Her mom is busy with her job at a local healthcare facility and also with raising Alex’s siblings. As a result, she is not home as much as she would like, leaving Alex in the care of her grandmother and various other relatives.
Prior to when she began coming to see me, Alex had a violent outburst that resulted in a psychiatric hospital stay. At that time, she was placed on an anti-psychotic medication. As a result, on many days, she falls asleep at her desk. On days when she is awake, she acts out in class, hitting other students and verbally abusing the teacher. A few months ago, Alex’s behavior at school began to significantly worsen. Because of the family’s low income, her insurance is through the Texas Medicaid Program. This means doctors are hard to find, especially psychiatric doctors. My attempts to adjust her medications did not help her behavior-instead she continued to worsen.
As an attempt to try and come up with some novel solutions, I made a housecall and met with the family and had them take me through a typical day for Alex. It turns out that after school, both Alex’s mom and grandmother are working. So instead of going home, she goes to the home of her grandfather, who lives with another male relative. Unfortunately, that male relative had sexually abused Alex a couple of years earlier.
So Alex has to spend some time each day in the home where she was abused in the past and in the presence of the abuser. Suddenly the spiraling anxiety and out-of-control behavior start to make a lot more sense.
What’s the point of this story? The point is that this is not an isolated incident. As a pediatrician, I see kids like Alex every day. Perhaps a parent is in jail, or just absent. Perhaps a parent has a mental health or substance abuse problem. Or both. Perhaps the parent is working two or three jobs to provide a meal and housing. Perhaps they are homeless. In Seguin ISD, about two-thirds of the students are poor. And this population has much higher rates of housing instability, food insecurity, mental health problems, substance abuse problems, single parent households, incarceration, truancy, you name it. And we are not, as a district nor as a community, dealing with this reality. As I said, I see kids like Alex every day. That’s my job. But Alex’s teachers see kids like her every day too. And they feel helpless because they feel they have no tools to help.
THAT is why our schools continue to struggle. We have no universal preschool. No free before-school or after-school programs for kids whose parents work. We provide no consistent social work services on our campuses. There are no mental health services. We don’t provide any extra transportation services for kids who live within 2 miles of their school. There is no partnership between SISD and employers to allow parents to interact with school personnel while at work.
This has been the case for decades and this, at bottom, is why we continue to be low-performing, failing to educate large numbers of our children. Historically, the answer has been “that’s not our job.” And perhaps that’s right. But unless we MAKE it our job, we are never going to be successful. We have a long history of blaming the parents. In some cases, perhaps they deserve blame. In other cases, they most certainly do not. But regardless, blaming them isn’t going to fix our problems.
It is time for us to adopt a far more expansive definition of what it means to educate our children. We need, certainly, to teach them to read, and write, and do math, and all those other things that are the schools’ “job”. But most importantly, we also need to teach them that we care. That means we need to go above and beyond. That’s what districts that are successful with populations like ours do. That’s what communities, civic leaders, faith leaders, and employers that really care about their kids do. It’s time for us to get with that program. Until then, we are going to continue to fail kids like Alex. And that’s not right.
Together, we can do better.