We have all heard the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. The vision of JMCSS Strong, a newly formed public school advocacy group in Jackson-Madison County, is for each child in our school system to have a village to help him/her succeed. Since we know that villages are formed by connecting people to one another, we want to make sure that children, along with their parents and teachers, are not disconnected from the larger system. No one should feel alone to face any issue that arises, whether that issue stems from the child’s needs, the parent’s needs, the teacher’s needs, or the school’s needs.
Let's hear the stories of two different children in two different schools, so we can see how important it is to have a village in place.
Katie has been falling behind in third grade, and she is anxious because her friends say fourth grade is going to be even harder. She is a good kid and a rule-follower, a shy girl who doesn’t like to raise her hand or draw attention to herself. She tries to do the work she is given even though much of it, especially the reading, is difficult for her. She doesn’t read as fast as her friends, and while she understands what she reads, she often runs out of time to finish her comprehension tests. Her spelling grades have gotten worse over the last few months. She knows she should ask her mom for help on her weekly word lists, but her mom works two jobs and Katie doesn’t want to add to the stress in the household.
Katie doesn’t mention her reading trouble to her mom. She doesn’t want to ask her teacher, Mrs. Jones, for help. Mrs. Jones is a dedicated teacher who is trying to meet the needs of her thirty students, some of whom demand a lot of attention. Mrs. Jones constantly feels that she needs more help, and she often wishes that her students’ parents would volunteer to help in the classroom. She is a kind and caring teacher but is also frustrated and overwhelmed. Katie knows the word “overwhelmed” because her mom says it a lot. Katie also knows what being overwhelmed feels like.
Katie’s mom is concerned. Katie has always been a happy child, but lately in the evenings, she has seemed preoccupied. In the few minutes they have together at bedtime, Katie’s mom asks her if anything is wrong. Katie says she is fine. Katie’s mom asks about school, and Katie says she likes her teacher and that school is okay. Katie’s last report card was okay, if not as good as the previous one. Mrs. Jones even wrote on the back, “Katie is a sweet and pleasant child. I have enjoyed having her in my class.”
When fourth grade starts, Katie’s new teacher, Mrs. Williams, notices that Katie is having a lot of trouble reading her assigned work. She informs Katie’s mother that Katie would benefit from extra reading practice. Katie’s mom cannot afford a tutor and does not have extra time to help Katie at home. Katie floats through fourth grade with worsening grades. Mrs. Williams is trying to help Katie with various reading interventions in the classroom but she isn’t seeing results. Katie knows that life is overwhelming for everyone sometimes, and doesn’t want to be the one to cause trouble. She does the best she can do on her own.
Katie’s mom asks the principal if there are any resources that offer a tutoring program to help her daughter, perhaps through the PTO or the PIE program? She is told that the PTO disbanded a few years ago and the PIE partners aren’t really in communication with the school anymore.
By the end of the fourth grade, Katie is still reading at a third grade level. Her final report card has a note from Mrs. Williams on the back saying, “Katie is a sweet child but does not apply herself. She needs to work on basic reading comprehension skills and would benefit from working with a reading tutor.”
Aidan starts second grade with a long record of first grade in-school suspensions, optimistically called “Extra Mile” by the teachers. He is bright and energetic. All the PTO parent volunteers know him because during the last school fundraising carnival he accidentally knocked over the bouncy house, and then during school movie night he started a fight with another kid over snacks. He often has to sit by himself at lunch as a consequence of his disruptive classroom behavior.
The PTO has set up a program in which parent volunteers read to the kids in the classroom for a few hours a week. Aidan really looks forward to reading time, but has a lot of trouble sitting still. Aidan’s dad isn’t able to volunteer during school PTO hours because he works during the day, and since he is going to school at night to finish his business degree, he doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with Aidan. Aidan’s assistant teacher, Ms. Davis, spends a lot of time working directly with Aidan on his new behavior plan, showing him how to make better behavior choices throughout the day. Aidan’s dad stays in daily contact with Aidan’s teacher via daily text messages.
Aidan’s dad learns from a PTO flyer about a “Ways You Can Help” initiative, and he and Aidan decide to help by tearing out workbook pages for teachers during the weekends. One Saturday, Aidan and his dad donate their time to help build a new shade pavilion beside the playground.
Aidan’s dad is still concerned about Aidan’s ongoing classroom behavior problems. Aidan’s teacher sets up a meeting with the principal, and Aidan’s dad learns about a PIE partner lunch buddy program. He enrolls Aidan, hoping the experience will be positive. Aidan’s lunch buddy, a retired engineer, gets to know Aidan over their meetings once a week. Sometimes they play chess, sometimes they just talk about life. Aidan looks forward to telling Mr. Brannon all about his new ideas for rocket designs, drawing on napkins and demonstrating with silverware and cups how everything should go together. Mr. Brannon tells Aidan’s dad about a new robotics league he is starting at the local public library and invites Aidan to come on weekends.
With his new interest in robotics and his continued work with Ms. Davis, Aidan’s general behavior gradually improves and he is able to focus better in class. He learns that he loves science lessons the most and excels in this area. During teacher appreciation week Aidan draws a picture of a flower in his teacher’s favorite color.
Aidan is excited to start third grade. His new teacher writes on his first report card, “Aidan has a good attitude in class and shows leadership ability.” Aidan enjoys sitting under the shade pavilion he and his dad helped to build, and he feels like he belongs.
How do we make our schools better? How do we help kids like Katie, who are quietly falling through the cracks? Katie’s mom and teacher both want the best for her and help her as much as they can, but they feel powerless, overwhelmed, and alone. Since there is a lack of connection for anyone who wants to help her, Katie does not have the support system she needs. Katie does not have a strong village to help her be successful.
Aidan’s dad and teachers are equally concerned about Aidan’s behavior problems. The difference for Aidan is the continuous connection between Aidan, his dad, his teachers, his principal, the PTO, the PIE partner, and the larger community of the school. In addition, Aidan’s teachers and principal are also supported by the same connections and relationships, and do not feel as overwhelmed. Aidan gets the help he needs with no extra money spent, no special services brought in. Of course, we know that sometimes kids need a lot more help than those relationships alone can provide, but even so, can you picture a world in which every child’s school functions as a village for that child? This is the vision of JMCSS Strong.
We have heard from parents, teachers, and principals who have all expressed numerous needs for their children and for their schools. No matter which school they represent, there is one need they all share—the need for help. Help acquiring curriculum materials, help building parent-teacher organizations, help with fundraising and volunteering ideas, help organizing teacher appreciation events, help establishing better Partners In Education program communication.
Our children need opportunities and attention beyond what one teacher can provide. Our schools need help beyond what the school board and the central office are able to provide. We envision JMCSS Strong as a sort of Town Square for all the school “villages” in Jackson-Madison County. We want to bring more people to the table for the larger conversations happening about our school system, and to show appreciation to our school board and the central office staff. We want to participate in non-profit initiatives to help students, help build up parent organizations, and create connections between our schools. Just as each school functions as a village of its own, being connected to a larger school community allows for the sharing of ideas, successes, and resources, which can make every school stronger.
Although the recent issue regarding the loss of teaching assistants throughout our system was the catalyst for the formation of our group, we want to make it clear that our mission and purpose go far beyond this particular issue. JMCSS Strong is not an issue-centered group, nor a group focused on the needs of any one school. We need your help to reach out to all our schools and let them know that we are here, and that we are listening.
Please consider attending one of our meetings, or access helpful information on our website. Consider becoming a JMCSS Strong Parent Contact at your school, to share what we are doing with those parents who are unable to attend our meetings. Like our Facebook page to stay current on our initiatives and to connect with parents from other schools. Share your concerns with us, since these concerns will shape our group as it grows. Be a voice for your children. Show up for them so they know you care. Strong schools are born out of villages. Let’s make sure every child has a village to raise them.
Guest contributor Carrie Prewitt is a teacher, musician, and photographer, and loves her life in her hometown of Jackson with her family.