As the superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, I am honored and pleased to have the opportunity to communicate with district stakeholders and the public by means of this monthly newspaper column. Any chance where I can utilize another channel of communication is an opportunity I am happy to take.
As I consider the state of public education today, I often consider my father’s work. He was a school administrator for 31 years and retired in 1992. (Yes, I have become my father!) It is astounding how much education has changed since he retired almost three decades ago. Whenever I think of my father’s work in public education, I am reminded of the ill-fated advertising campaign, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” If you are of a certain generation and graduated more than 10 years ago, the slogan, “This is not your father’s education” may apply to you. Education today is NOT what it was even a decade ago.
Let me explain how and why it is so different today than what previous generations have experienced.
Today’s educational landscape is dotted with so much more than the proverbial “Three R’s.” In today’s educational system, educators must provide many more services to students before they can even begin to teach them academic subject matter. For instance, school meals are crucial to the education of students. Students cannot learn if they are hungry. That is why most schools offer breakfast, lunch, and even afternoon snacks. Some schools even offer evening meals for students who are enrolled in after-school programs.
In addition to filling bodies with healthy foods, educators are now tasked with ensuring students are well-adjusted from a social-emotional perspective. Students who are anxious, afraid, or angry do not learn very well. As a result, many schools, including all of Bemidji School District’s elementary schools, offer social-emotional learning (SEL) to help students learn how to calm themselves and regulate emotions. Not only does this help with the learning process, such training also helps reduce bullying and improves students’ social skills.
In the district’s upper levels (middle and high school), much effort and training is taking place in “Restorative Justice.” Such restorative practices help students who have found themselves in trouble be able to address and rectify what they have done (bullied others, vandalized the building, etc.). By working with students in these situations, educators can teach students they are responsible for addressing and fixing the damage they have caused. In addition, this alternative is much better than suspending students who should remain in school. Restorative practices also allow students who have been victims of bullying become empowered to face and address those who are bullies. It gives students a voice and helps eliminate on-going issues between students.
Finally, a new buzzword in education is “equity,” a very important concept. Many people confuse equity with equality, but it is very important to maintain a distinction between the two concepts. To treat everyone with equality is actually creating inequality. In other words, as I’ve been saying for years, “One of the most unfair practices we can perpetrate on others is to try to treat everyone fairly.” This is a confusing idea, but imagine three students who are all at different levels of academic learning and development. Do we want to treat each of them equally and fairly, or do we want to provide a few more supports for those who need additional help? Equity occurs when educators identify and provide additional help and support for students who are struggling and who need additional help. On the face of it, it seems unfair, but it helps to even the playing field for students who are disadvantaged. That is equity, and it is a concept that is relatively new but very important in education today.
As you can see, public education today is light-years beyond what it was several decades ago. Many more duties, responsibilities and mandates are placed upon the shoulders of our schools, teachers, and administrators. But, one goal that has never changed is our focus on partnering with parents. We recognize that parents are the first teachers of children, and we always welcome the input support, and participation of parents and families. That is one educational mandate I hope will never change.