BRIDGES AND CHAINS

Could An Idea Save Public Schools And By Extension — Civilization?

It is not without reason the Jesuits supposedly ask for the child until he is seven so they can give back the man…

Dear Citizen,

Several years ago, while waiting for dinner at a restaurant, I picked up a magazine published by a religious educational foundation. Inside, was an article explaining how new students at the foundation’s privately run school were made to feel welcome by upper-class men and women. This was in contrast to the traditional hazing and teasing new students experience at most other public and private schools around the country. I started to think.

What if this idea were carried further? What if we did more than extend a welcoming hand? What if we made a national goal for each educational institution in this country to ask of its student body, from K-1 through the senior year of high school (or college for that matter), to embark upon a program which could change the fabric of this society in twelve years, and what if it didn’t cost a dime?

Suppose we ask every student in this country to accept responsibility for students in the class level just below their own attained grade. Suppose we ask each student to help members of the class level one grade below their own with school work or social growth or athletics or music instruction or any of the myriad tasks a child faces during their educational career. Suppose we go further.

Suppose, on the first day of class in all the elementary schools nationwide, only the sixth and fifth graders attend. The sixth graders extend their hands welcoming the fifth graders. They tell the lower class boys and girls that last year; they too were new to the fifth grade but managed to make it through. Suppose they say once a week I/we will come to your class for one hour and help you where you need help. The only thing they would then ask in return is for the fifth graders to do the exact same thing the next day for the fourth graders attending their own first day of class, and so on across all grade levels at all schools.

Suppose we ask each student to not only extend a welcoming hand the first day of class, but each and every day thereafter until the end of each school year. What might happen?

Would attendance improve? Probably. Would a sense of responsibility be instilled in the youngest of minds? More than likely. Would violence and turf warfare subside? Maybe. It’s certainly worth finding out. But this new environment of caring and co-operation has to start from on high.

When a U. S. President welcomes a new cabinet member to their post, it does several things, both for the newly appointed official and for the citizens of this country. The ceremony usually takes place with full press attendance so everyone, members of congress, leaders of business and the public, can see the faith the Chief Executive has in the appointee, faith they are the right person for the job. Now suppose, on a smaller scale, a student enters first grade or high school or college and instead of orientation (indicating the student arrives disoriented), the new students arrive to a ceremony of welcome. One would think a sense of community would become the prevailing atmosphere and would ease the burden of apprehension a young mind feels when faced with a whole new set of challenges in an unfamiliar place.

Additionally, in today’s educational system, if an educator recognizes a student experiencing difficulty with a subject, notes go home, counselors are contacted, reports are filed and arrangements are made to help the student (that is if the student will accept the help without feeling intimidated). Imagine how easy it would be to periodically have members of the previous year’s class visit classrooms and offer assistance in areas where they had success the year before. This year’s algebra students could help the younger class members with percentages. This year’s engineering students could help the grade below them with drafting assignments. This year’s varsity track team would help coach incoming freshmen and women with fundamentals. And so on.

So what happens? For two, three, or four years high school and college students might feel silly saying “welcome, please and thank you” or “may I help you?” Offering help might feel awkward or un-cool for students who’ve spent their entire academic career in an environment of hostility, cowering in hallways or running straight home after school to get off the “mean streets.” But they’ll soon be gone and a new batch of students who’ve helped create this new atmosphere will move up the ladder.

New first and second graders will enter the schoolyard and won’t know things have changed. Teachers will start to find students more interested in the curricula than previous classes. Counselors will counsel more in the area of academics and less in the area of trauma control. The PTA members who actually show up to periodic meetings will spend more time deciding how to better utilize school resources and less time discussing the problems of having their children attend classes in an armed encampment.

Now please, think for just a moment on how simple all this seems. Then, think of a stop sign. A stop sign is a simple idea and costs very little to place at a street coroner. But think of the lives it saves each year. 911 is a simple idea too, but the reduced response time of public safety departments to emergencies around the country has been well worth the small cost of implementation over the past decades.

Finally, asking students to accept responsibility for the grade level just below their own is a simple idea and like all simple ideas may or may not work. But we won’t know until it’s tried.

If however, the idea works, it creates a safer bridge students cross as they travel through their educational years. It also strengthens our weaker links making our connections to each other stronger.

I, for one, think it is worth the effort. If you agree, please address this as a letter and forward it to any and all the educators, politicians and parent groups you can think of sending it to post haste.