The school year is winding down now, and what a school year it’s been.
It started with uncertainty, as the governor and legislature grappled over the state budget, threatening to cut Education Cost Sharing outlays and shift teacher-pension payments to cities and towns. Many districts considered mid-year staff cuts. Thankfully, a less draconian budget was passed, although it did require teachers to contribute an additional 1 percent of their salaries to the Teacher Retirement System.
Smartphones, meanwhile, continued their steady encroachment upon the school scene, causing Seymour High School to ban them for the entire school day. Many students were dismayed, but given the growing evidence regarding cell phones’ deleterious effects on attention spans and thinking skills — not to mention a possible link to teen depression and suicide — Seymour should be regarded as a bellwether of smartphone policy.
February saw the horrific mass shooting at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School. Students across Connecticut responded by participating in the National School Walkout on March 14 to promote safe schools. Many additional Connecticut students staged a similar walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. Lane Murdock, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School, was among the organizers for the event that encouraged students to “stand up to gun violence and say ‘enough’.”
The springtime brought cheerful news for the 15 top high schools in Connecticut, as determined by U.S. News, most of which were — no surprise here — either specialized magnet institutions or affluent suburban schools. A few weeks later, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney took Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to task in the halls of Congress for failing to respond to angry letters sent from Connecticut dignitaries over a year ago after the secretary publicly declared East Hartford High School the poster child for school vouchers.
DeVos said — one would hope sheepishly — she would comply “as soon as I get enough of my staff in place to be able to respond adequately.”
As the school year ends, there is some good news: Connecticut schools ranked 4th nationally on Education Week’s annual list. The state scored an 87.8 out of 100 points, a grade of B+ as compared to the national average of C. We still have education problems in Connecticut, but the news is far from all bad.
That said, other end-of-the-year news is more troubling. Regional School District 10 in Harwinton and Burlington just announced it will arm school security guards this fall, the first district in Connecticut to do so since Enfield disarmed theirs in 2015. And budget woes in Ansonia forced the elimination of 24 teaching positions, meaning 17 individual teachers will lose their jobs.
So the circle has closed: The year that began with statewide budgetary shortfalls is ending with local fiscal miseries, while national school-shooting fears have again touched Connecticut.
What do I take away from my own 2017-18 school year? In short, I see a disconcerting number of anxious kids in high school. Teenagers are anxious about safety in school, about their academic workload, about an uncertain future. I also see teenagers divided into a widening gap between “high achievers” and everyone else. And I see more student eyeballs directed at cellphone screens rather than at books or even other student eyeballs.
High school students today, simply, are trying to adapt to a volatile and frightening world by retreating into spaces that offer security and predictability. But what they really need is attentive adults who will lead them.
Kids need parents to establish visible parameters and constructive goals. Kids need teachers to communicate specific expectations and to institute fair and consistent rules. And kids need parents and teachers to hold them accountable to their responsibilities — no more making excuses or turning a blind eye.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m hardly a classroom dictator; I’m not advocating medieval practices. The plain fact is that most kids work better in a structured environment led by a reliable adult — they thrive in such situations, in fact.
Bottom line: We need adults to step up. It won’t cure all of Connecticut’s education ills, but it would be a productive start. And who knows? Next year’s end-of-the-year school review might not be so dismal.
Here’s wishing everyone — students, parents, teachers, administrators — a pleasant summer that recharges you and enables you to start anew next year.
Barth Keck is a father of three and an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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